Why didn't the Japanese use Shields? - The Comprehensive Minds

 Why didn't the Japanese use SHIELDS?

Why didn't the Japanese use SHIELDS?

So why didn’t the Japanese use shields? The answer is… they actually did use shields, more than pop history would have you believe. The real history is more complicated and involved blocking bullets with freaking bamboo. Way back in ancient Japan, they did use shields. Chinese records mention the Japanese using handheld shields dating back to at least the 200s. And the 300s to 500s saw plenty of hot shield-on-shield action. 

They were mostly rectangular, about 2 or 3times longer than they were wide, usually made by coating a few layers of leather with lacquer, but we do see some examples of iron shields around this time. And then soldiers got tired of holding their shields and decided they wanted walls that could move instead. 

Japanese SHIELDS?

Around the Nara Period, when Japan was flirting with having a centralized state and national army, we see widespread use of shields that were bigger and could stand by themselves. Now we gotta differentiate between the handheld shields and these stationary standing shields. The handheld variety, the Japanese lost interest in, but the free-standing type saw action throughout medieval Japan. 

These things were around eye-level height and they had a folding pole on the back for letting them stand by themselves. You could jam the pole into the ground or use your foot to anchor it. Long poles are useful, they can be put in many different positions. Shields made of one wooden board were ideal, but usually, they were 2 or 3 planks joined together, sometimes even 4.

Shields made of one wooden board

These were not lacquered, but by the late Kamakura Period, it became hip to paint the crest of your clan on the front, because of marketing. These free-standing shields acted like portable walls. Just line them up side-by-side and you had a wall to protect your archers. If the archers needed to move elsewhere, they just picked up the shields and repositioned. 

Don’t underestimate a big piece of wood, I always say. When running away, they could put the shields on their backs to protect against arrows. They also hung these shields on the sides of boats and even used them as ladders or benches. But when guns entered the battlefield, bullets ripped right through the wood. Making the shields out of iron helped, but there were cheaper, more bamboo-ey options. Sometimes they put in front of the shield wall a row of wet straw. 

Shields made of  wooden board

At first, you’re like that’s dumb, but they did deflect or at least slow down the bullets. Showing no respect to pandas, they also rolled up bamboo stalks in bundles and used those in place of shields. Apparently, they worked. Oh bamboo, what can’t you do? They even used bamboo bundles in these moving platforms of death where archers and riflemen rained down destruction behind cover while other men pushed them about. 

The old handheld shields became uncommon, probably due to the weapons the Japanese used. Let’s talk about the samurai, and afterward, the ordinary foot soldiers, don’t forget about them. By the 800s, the main warriors on the battlefield were not men on foot, but mounted archers, like the Mongols. As the warrior class arose in Japan, they fought in small, skilled units, not vast armies. 

This became the reality of war in Japan for a long time. For this warrior class, these samurai, their main weapon was not the sword, but the bow. Swords were actually piss-poor weapons on the battlefield. Aside from a bow, the next best weapon was some kind of polearm like a naginata, which makes sense because swords were too short to use on horseback. 


You can think of a sword like a pistol for the modern soldier. Ideally, you’d be using your rifle, the pistol is a backup weapon. If you’re forced to use your pistol, you're probably in a bad situation. For a samurai, when he had to draw his sword, it probably meant he fell off his horse, a bad situation. So the bow was the dominant, iconic samurai weapon in early medieval Japan. 

Also Read: 12 Bizarre Aspects Of Everyday Life In Ancient Viking Culture

Firing a bow on horseback at pokemon is hard enough, imagine holding this slab of iron at the same time. No, they needed the protection of the non-handheld variety, and this came in the form of body armor. Japanese armor optimized for riding a horse and firing a bow. 

There were actually little tweaks to help with bow usage, like smooth leather straps in strategic places so that the bowstringed not get caught in the armor. Instead of hand shields, they had shoulder armor called osode (大袖). If you’ve ever seen Japanese armor, you'd know it’s very recognizable. That’s because of how it’s put together.


They used these little plates, a few centimeters in length, made of rawhide or iron. They were holy. Like, they had a bunch of holes in them. And these hard-working little guys joined together to form armor that was flexible and effective. So let’s go through how an armorer, we'll call her Erin M., would use these plates of awesome. Armorer Erin starts by overlapping these plates so their holes lined up, then she ties them together with leather or cords. 

She coats this bottom part with lacquer, which makes it a single bigger plate and also protects it from the elements. She creates a few bigger plates and ties them in a series so that they hang downwards, making a biggerer plate. There were a bunch of different patterns she could have used to lace the plates together, but this was basically how they made armor, including the osode. 

samurai weapon

Osode basically took the place of handheld shields. They were shields on your shoulders. They were flexible and fastened to a samurai body armor in a way that allowed him to move them in front to block incoming arrows, but when he drew a bow, the osode fell back out of the way. The samurai’s arms had a full range of motion for firing arrows. Now, what about foot soldiers? Well, you may be surprised. 

They didn’t have the full body armor of samurai, so you would think shields would have offered good protection. The thing is, they had to fight both mounted warriors and other foot soldiers. A sword is terrible for this, it’s too short for both. They mostly used two-handed weapons like bows, naginata, kumade, and later on, arquebuses. Hard to use handheld shields with those. 

Early on in Japanese history, troop numbers were not high enough to use formations with shields that were effective for European armies like the Romans. That’s not to say they stopped using handheld shields. Though it was uncommon, we do have evidence that they were used from time to time throughout medieval Japan. 

shield to block a pistol shot.

They were around the size of osode. Here’s an illustration that describes how to use such a shield to block a pistol shot. 

Here’s another shield that has a pretty cool design. It has a male skirt. Mail skirt. It has a viewport and a place to put a candle. It was probably used when defending attacks at night. The Edo Period saw the appearance of these shields that were only a bit bigger than your hand and were used to protect the sword hand while holding a sword. 

mail skirt

But all in all, handheld shields were not used often. Early medieval warfare in Japan consisted of small units on horseback, where two-handed weapons were king. For foot soldiers early on, effective formations that made use of handheld shields did not form because they just didn’t have enough troops. So the Japanese leveled up their armor technology. 

By the time of the Sengoku Period, when you did see massive troop numbers that might have made formations with shields effective, shields had already fallen out of favor. There wasn’t a strong motivation to use shields, especially when armor was so advanced and everyone was accustomed to two-handed weapons. 

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