History of Samurai Mask (From 14th Century)

 The movie “The Last Samurai” starring Hollywood Heartthrob Tom Cruise hit the cinemas almost 2 decades ago. While the movie did not depict this, real Samurais in ancient Japan had a very special and essential piece of armor: their masks.

The oldest samurai mask on exhibit was from around the 14th century (based on a somen exhibit in Met Museum) but it is difficult to determine the exact age of the oldest surviving samurai mask, as many historical artifacts from this time period have been lost or destroyed over the centuries.

These masks had various functions and meanings associated, from protection to intimidation, there’s an interesting history behind these unusual pieces of armor. In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at the history of the 4 types of Mempo included: Somen, Mempo, Hanbo, and Happuri.

History of Somen Masks (Entire Face)


Somen masks were worn by samurai as early as the 14th century based on a Met Museum exhibit. These straw-made masks were designed to cover the head, neck, and face of the samurai in order to provide them with anonymity during horseback riding, as well as give protection from wind and sun exposure.

However, the popular dipped as they were believed to hinder the vision of the samurai and replaced with other types of masks.

History of Mempo Masks (Nose Down to Chin)

Mempo were used to protect the face and neck in battle and were also used to intimidate opponents. They were made of metal or leather and often had openings for the eyes, nose, and mouth. Some mempo were decorated with intricate designs, such as dragons, flowers, or other symbols, and were used to show the Samurai's rank and status.

History of Hanbo Masks (Lower Face to Chin)

Following mempo and somen masks, hanbo masks are unmistakable and among the most iconic pieces of Japanese armor and are widely collected. Expensive masks were adorned with beautiful gold and silver patterns and designs to distinguish the status of the wearer and are of the most fascinating relics from old samurai history.

History of Happuri Masks (Forehead and Cheek)

During the rule of the samurai class in Japan, they were often accessorized with masks or headdresses crafted from high-end materials decorated with beautiful designs. The masks displayed their honor and power.

These 4 types of masks varied according to the parts of the face that were covered. Our beloved Samurai would choose the type of mask to be used based on their preferences, nature, and what was required of them. Often designed to show a surly and stern expression, with mouths twisted into a fierce scowl, they were first meant to intimidate opponents, among other purposes.

Women samurais found great importance in the usage of Samurai masks, to ensure that their opponents were intimidated and frightened of them despite their gender differences. Besides protecting the Samurai from facial injuries and masking their identity of the Samurai, the mask also serves decorative purposes. It not only instills fear in their opponents, but is a vessel for artistic expression, where Samurais can use designs that represent themselves, their loved ones, or their duty as a Samurai.

The fun part about Samurai masks is that there is no set rule or design! Some masks had huge noses, long nose hair, or long ears. Some masks were also made to look like demons or even wild animals. Samurais were free to design their masks however they wished.

Perhaps a Samurai wanted to run and bound as quickly and swiftly as a rabbit, hence he utilized a mask that resembled that of a wild rabbit. Perhaps a Samurai wanted to be as cunning and intelligent as a fox, hence he utilized a mask that resembled a fox. Clearly, Samurai masks knew no bounds and should be appreciated from an artistic standpoint.

The armor of the highest-ranking Samurais would often include an elaborate crest mounted on the top of their mask. These crests represented their family and the Samurai’s protective duty owed to them as a Samurai. It also served as a reminder for the Samurai to remember what he was fighting for, especially in difficult and dangerous situations.

Regardless of design, there is no doubt that when meeting a Samurai clad in a mask, even the bravest of soldiers will tremble!

Samurai museums can be found in Japan, which provides guided tours as well as interactive experiences. We recommend the Samurai & Ninja museum with experience located in the heart of Osaka. With kind and friendly tour guides who are familiar with a number of languages, foreigners will be able to learn a great deal about the beautiful history of Samurais.

In this museum, you will be greeted by interactive quizzes and questionnaires to test your Samurai knowledge. After a riveting tour, you will be able to put on a full set of Samurai armor (a mask too!) and experience life as a respected Samurai! Such an experience is perfect for lovers of Samurai, or even just people interested to learn more about an aspect of Japan’s overflowing culture.

Undoubtedly, the Samurai mask is a beautiful and novel aspect of the Samurai. Now, whenever you watch a Samurai film or drama, be sure to appreciate the art depicted in the design of the Samurai’s mask! 

When visiting Japan, it often pays to be courteous and follow customs — established or not — as traditions are an integral part of the culture. To get you started on your search, here are 10 must-have bags when traveling around Japan!

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