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Heroes In The Half-Shell: Samurai Wore Huge, Turtle-Like Back Protection

Ancient History | August 30, 2019

Those aren't backpacks or turtle shells...they are the Samurais' Horo. Source: (reddit.com)

If you were to travel back in time and witness warriors going into battle with huge, shell-like bulges on their backs, it means you've landed in one of two time-spaces: 1980s New York City or feudal Japan. Take a look at the warriors. Are they adolescent boys who morphed into reptiles after coming in contact with radioactive sewage or samurai soldiers? Believe it or not, it could be either, thanks to a traditional samurai garment called a horo. What's a horo, and why did samurai wear these odd-looking turtle shells in battle?

The Samurai Horo may call to mind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Source: (time.com)

What is a Horo?

Samurai warriors had a lot of strange battle garments, like clan badges and elaborate helmets, but the horo was probably the weirdest. It was essentially a cape, but it had a framework underneath it to poof it out and hold it in a rounded position. Early on, the framework was made of silk fabric that was tightly sewn into flexible strips, like stays in a corset. Later, whalebones were used in the same way that they were used in corsets. Over the framework was the silk cape, adorned with the warrior's family crest. 

Men dressed in ancient armors of the samurai, participants of a festival, Nikko, Japan in 1970. Source: (Photo by Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

What Was the Horo Used For?

Like all good battlefield gear, the horo had several purposes. It might have looked like a cheap, homemade superhero costume, but the horo was way more functional than it appeared. In fact, historians contend that the horo had at least four functions: communicating status, intimidation, protection, and identification. 

The Horo was a frame that held the silk cloak out in a rounded fashion. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

The Status of the Horo

Not all Japanese warriors were equal, and samurai were at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. These were elite military men who devoted their entire lives to training and serving the shogun or emperor. The bushi were salaried soldiers, akin to enlisted men. They were still ranked higher than common people in the social hierarchy of Japan, but they were usually not of noble birth, like samurai. A distinction needed to be made between samurai and bushi, and in this case, size mattered. The bigger the horo, the more important the dude.

The imposing image of a Samurai with a billowing Horo. Source: (gunbai-militaryhistory.blogspot.com)

The Intimidating Horo

When engaged in battle, the silk cloak covering of the horo was pulled tightly over the framework, but when the warrior was riding his horse, the cloth would catch the wind and billow out. Some military historians think that this was done on purpose to make the rider appear much larger. Yes, ancient samurai used the blowfish method of intimidation.

Statues and paintings show us what the Horo looked like. Source: (muza-chan.net)

Horo as a Form of Protection

Like an inflated balloon, the horo kept a buffer of air between the warrior’s back and the outer edge of the cloak. When the silk cloth was pulled tightly over the framework, it made a nearly impenetrable shield to stop arrows from striking the wearer from behind. Silk is a deceptively strong fabric, considering it's made of thin worm threads. When woven tightly, Legolas himself couldn't touch you.

Turtle power? Nope...just a Samurai wearing a Horo. Source: (facebook.com)

The Horo as Identification

Like your Hogwarts house t-shirt, the center of the horo was embroidered with the warrior's family crest. During the heat of battle, the horo could help differentiate ally from enemy and even aid in identifying a fallen warrior. A passage in the diary of Hosokawa Yusai, a Japanese poet, noted that when a warrior killed another warrior in battle, it was his duty to decapitate the head of the dead warrior and wrap it in the dead man's horo. That way, his remains can be identified later and returned to his family for proper burial. It's one of the few times bringing someone the head of a loved one is appreciated.

Horo in action. Source: (labrujulaverde.com)

The End of the Horo

Despite its comical appearance, the horo was pretty good at its job of stopping arrows, but bullets were a bit above its pay grade. When gunpowder was invented and military weaponry moved from bows and arrows to guns and bullets, the horo no longer protected the warrior, so its use fell out of fashion. Today, paintings and statues of the time serve as the only evidence we have that the great, ancient samurai walked around looking like they were waiting for their moms to pick them up from Comic-Con.

Tags: battlefield gear | Samurai warriors | The Horo

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.