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9 February 2024 · Mazda Stories

Protecting Tradition

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Tatsuhito Imamura, one of the last kacchu-shi armour makers, epitomises the connection between traditional Japanese design and the communities keeping the art alive for generations to come.

Words John Ashburne / Images Tatsuhito Imamura

While the connection between a modern Mazda vehicle and ancient Japanese armour may not seem obvious, the two are nevertheless joined by a design philosophy in which form and function go hand in hand. Through the skilled work of Takumi craftsmen, emotion and practicality are combined, be it to embody the joy of driving or to enable warriors to survive the rigours of the feudal battlefield. While the Mazda Takumi breathe life into metal for driving communities around the world, it is communities themselves who are revitalising the near-forgotten world of the armourer’s workshop.

Tatsuhito Imamura regularly connects with fans of kacchu-shi across the world on social media, which helps to spread the word about one of Japan’s most revered art forms.

It’s all in the details: Japanese armour was a “condensed representation of the various thoughts and feelings of the warriors,” Imamura explains.

In a quiet, leafy suburb of Kyoto, Japan, in the shadow of an old forest where an ancient emperor lies entombed, the gentle tap, tap, tap of hammer on metal announces the presence of the artisanal tradition dating back centuries. This is the realm of the kacchu-shi (traditional armour maker) and it’s here, in the armourer’s workshop, that a master craftsman is keeping the ancient skills alive.


Tatsuhito Imamura is a fourth-generation armourer. His artist’s alias, Heian Ju Issui, roughly translates as ‘the one residing in the ancient capital’, and the title places him clearly in a line of Kyoto master craftsmen. That Japan, like Mazda, respects its master craftsmen goes without question, but how does a maker of medieval combat equipment align with the 21st century?

“THE ROLE OF THE KACCHU-SHI HAS HAD TO EVOLVE.”

- TATSUHITO IMAMURA, ARMOUR MAKER, KYOTO ARMOR

“The role of the kacchu-shi has had to evolve,” explains Imamura. “The work has come to involve producing replicas of ancient armour, repairing cultural items for museums, and creating smaller ceremonial pieces for the sekku annual festivals (a national holiday to celebrate the happiness and health of children) and interior decoration. Armourers are either those descended from ancient armoursmiths, or artisanal craftsmen who took up the craft after the Second World War. I fit into the latter group.”

The shift from armour as necessary battlefield protection to desirable decorative ornament is not a new concept. During the peace of the Edo period (1615-1868), when it became evident that armour was unlikely to be used in actual combat, it began to be produced and perceived as an artefact – a thing of beauty.

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“Our company was founded in 1925, but our methods and processes are ancient,” Imamura explains. “We create ornamental armour, and this is a massive team effort as we have artisanal craftsmen from all across Japan.”

His work is appreciated across generations and passed down from parents to children. “Crafts made from carefully selected, high-quality materials develop a deep meaning over time,” Imamura explains. “[A] helmet will age as your child grows, and over time it will become a one-of-a-kind ornament that cannot be found anywhere else.”

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“WE MUST TEACH THROUGH EXPERIENCE, AND CREATE PASSION.”

- TATSUHITO IMAMURA, ARMOUR MAKER, KYOTO ARMOR

Just as a Mazda vehicle rolling off the production line is a pure composite of Takumi skills – from initial clay modelling to fabric and metalwork – there are several steps that the kacchu-shi must follow: fabrication, which involves making steel or copper plates; decoration, with gold leaf or plating; and finishing, which is the final assembly of the armour.

Everything is made for pre-orders, and a large piece will take around six months to complete. Including elements of braidinglacquerware, and, in association with its original use, Japanese blacksmithing, armour-making is an amalgamation of several centuries-old traditions.

MAN OF STEEL

At Mazda’s headquarters, Kawano is an expert in manipulating metal that not only draws parallels with Mazda’s existing eye-catching vehicle designs but also hints at those to come. At Kawano’s workshop in the Design Modelling Studio, Zoom-Zoom witnesses Mazda’s own master of metal as he uses modified tools to bow and shape the shimmering material to create a Rashin sculpture: a one-of-a-kind piece that is strikingly similar to designs seen throughout Mazda vehicles. You can read the full interview here.

Imamura has a small, dedicated team, including a young apprentice who he is training to pick up the Heian Ju Issui mantle. “We cannot expect to preserve and continue the art of the kacchu-shi just by giving someone a manual and saying, ‘Do it like this’,” says Imamura. “We must teach through experience. A true kacchu-shi must believe in manufacturing, in crafting beautiful things by hand.” It’s the same mindset that Takumi Master Yutaka Kawano adopts with those under his tutelage – ensuring that younger generations of designers and artists can understand Mazda’s design philosophy

“WE MUST LET THE WORLD KNOW ABOUT THE BEAUTY OF OUR CRAFT, OUR ARMOUR, AND OUR TRADITION.”

- TATSUHITO IMAMURA, ARMOUR MAKER, KYOTO ARMOR

Like Kawano, Imamura is an expert at creating emotion through form – where happiness, contentment, and satisfaction can all be felt by viewing a work of art. Symbolism, too, is present across Japanese art, and armour is no exception. As they entered battle, the samurai were very conscious about how they appeared, wanting to be both beautiful and terrifyingly warlike. “Armour was considered to be the equivalent of ceremonial dress on the battlefield and is a condensed representation of the various thoughts and feelings of the warriors,” explains Imamura. “Each design has its own meaning, and every part of the armour expresses Japanese culture and values. The humble dragonfly, for example, was revered, as it never retreats, only moves forward.”

The ancient art of the kacchu-shi attracts an international following and, thanks to social media, Imamura is in regular contact with enthusiasts and clients around the world. “Many people overseas are impressed and inspired by the Japanese sense of Bushido [the moral code and lifestyle of the samurai],” he explains. “It could be said that this is a return to the Japanese love of the beauty of the old.” Across Imamura’s social media, followers describe his work as “amazing,” and “truly beautiful” – and spread the word about one of Japan’s most revered art forms.

Similarly, by creating decorative armour for the sekku children’s festivals, the craftsmanship of the traditional armourer is presented to new generations of admirers both at home and overseas.

In his traditional craftsman’s clothing, known as samue, Imamura kneels on the tatami mat, shaping a piece of metal into a samurai mask. “My grandfather made these tools,” he says with pride, indicating the subtly different tap hammers and iron scissors. And what of the future? “We must let the world know about the beauty of our craft, our armour, and our tradition,” he says. “That is how we will survive.”

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