Protecting Tradition



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.

Whilst the connection between a modern Mazda vehicle and ancient Japanese armour may not seem obvious, the two are nevertheless joined by a philosophy of design that insists on form and function going 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 survive the rigours of the feudal battlefield. While the Takumi of Mazda 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.

“The role of the kacchu-shi has had to evolve.”

Tatsuhito Imamura

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 and it’s here, in the armourer’s workshop, that a master craftsman is keeping the ancient skills alive.

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

Tatsuhito Imamura is a fourth-generation armourer. His artist alias, Heian Ju Issui, roughly translates as ‘the One Residing in the Ancient Capital’, a title that 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,” explains Imamura, “the work has come to involve the creation of replicas of ancient armour, repair of cultural properties for museums, and the creation of smaller ceremonial pieces for the sekku boys’ and girls’ festivals, and as interior decoration. Armourers are either those descended from ancient armoursmiths, or artisanal craftsmen who took up the craft after World War Two. 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), it became evident that armour was unlikely to be used in actual combat, and it began to be produced and perceived as an artefact—a thing of beauty. “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.”

Even after completion, Imamura’s work is appreciated for generations, from parents to children. “Crafts made from carefully selected, high-quality materials develop a deep flavour 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.”

“We must teach through experience and create a passion.”

Tatsuhito Imamura

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, making steel or copper plates; decoration, with gold leaf or plating; and finishing, the final assembly of the armour.

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

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 generation of designers and artists can understand Mazda’s design philosophy.


At Mazda’s headquarters, Takumi Master Yutaka Kawano is an expert in manipulating metal that not only draws parallels with Mazda eye-catching vehicle designs, but foreshadows those to come. Using modified tools and within his workshop in the Design Modelling Studio, Mazda Stories witnesses Mazda’s own master of metal as he bows and shapes 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.

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 a 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 moving forward”.

“We must let the world know about the beauty of our craft, our armour and our tradition.”

Tatsuhito Imamura

The ancient art of the Kacchu-shi attracts followers across the world, 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,” he explains. “It could be said that this is a return to the Japanese love of beauty of old.” Across his social media, followers describe his work as “amazing,” and “truly beautiful” — and, using the nature of digital platforms, spread the word on one of Japan’s most revered art forms.

Similarly, by creating decorative armour for the Sekku boys’ and girls’ festivals, a national holiday to celebrate the happiness and health of children, the craftsmanship of the traditional armourer are 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. Yet, 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”.

Words John Ashburne / Images Tatsuhito Imamura

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Form meets function