Modern depictions of samurai often show them wearing dark, disturbing face masks akin to something Darth Vadar might wear in Star Wars*. That leaves many people wondering whether samurai actually wore these masks or if that is simply Hollywood’s interpretation of a samurai’s standard outfit and appearance.
Samurai wore masks usually made from iron and leather. These masks were called menpō, though some sources call them by different names, including mengu, men-yoroi, happuri, hanpō, hanbō, and (inaccurately) mempo. Masks provided several various benefits to the samurai who wore them.
The various reasons that samurai wore masks will be discussed below; however, regardless of the warrior’s specific need for the menpō, there’s no denying that they were an essential part of samurai culture. This article will further break down why and provide more general information about samurai masks.
*Fun Fact: George Lucas actually got the idea for Darth Vader’s mask from famous samurai, Date Masamune. 
Why Did Samurai Wear Masks?
Samurai wore masks for three primary reasons. Most importantly, menpō protected the warriors’ faces from direct attacks and sword slashes. Secondly, they believed the masks would strike fear in their opponents. Finally, the menpō also helped secure their helmets more firmly to their heads.
Simply put, the masks served both practical purposes (defense and holding armor in place) and psychological ones (causing fear).  The following sections will break down these three fundamental reasons in more detail.
Masks Protected Samurai’s Faces
Though each warrior’s mask may have looked different, they all featured the same basic components in their construction: iron and leather. Those were the same two elements used in most all armor during that time, making the masks just as much a valuable piece of armor as a helmet or tatami suit. 
Samurai Used Masks to Intimidate Their Opponents
No matter what else they were, samurai were human beings, subject to the same emotions – fear, anger, worry, etc. – as anyone else. Samurai tried to unnerve their enemies before they ever engaged them in battle because a scared opponent would likely be easier to defeat.
It was for that reason that the samurai made their masks as ferocious-looking as possible; after all, the scarier and more disturbing something looks, the more likely it is to cause fear and dismay in anyone who sees it.
Masks Help Secure the Samurai’s Helmets in Place
A samurai’s helmet, or kabuto, rested on top of his head and had a chin cord called the shinobi-no-o that went behind the ears and under the chin to hold the helmet in place. It was a reasonably effective way to keep the helmet secure.
However, the mask would go on top of the face and over the chin cord. It also had hooks that would further hold down the chin strap. When a samurai had his mask in place, it was harder for his opponent to knock off his helmet.
Even if the enemy succeeded in knocking it off the samurai’s head, the mask kept the chin strap in place, meaning the helmet wouldn’t be likely to fall off and hit the ground. Instead, it would hang behind the samurai’s head until he had a spare moment to put it back in place.
What Did Samurai Masks Look Like?
Samurai masks looked like distorted faces with angry, violent expressions. They usually started below the eyes, covering only the nose, cheekbones, and the face below those areas. They were painted or lacquered in various colors, and the mouths were typically cut wide into a grimace or scream.
The masks’ colors ranged from black and dark gray to tan, brown, and russet. The fighters usually lacquered their insides with a red finish because they thought it made them look more menacing and warlike.
Facial expressions varied on each mask, but some similarities included the following:
- Large or oversized noses
- Wide-cut mouths that looked to be screaming, grimacing, snarling, smirking, or smiling
- Defining lines for cheekbones, chins, etc.
The masks usually had neckpieces to guard the sensitive areas of the throat, and there was typically a hole somewhere on the bottom of them so sweat could drain through instead of pooling inside.
Over time, the masks became more and more elaborate. Some samurai added facial hair – usually mustaches – teeth, additional chins, movable mouthparts, or removable fangs.
There were also some full-length masks that covered everything from the forehead to below the chin, but those were rare.
What Were Samurai Masks Made Out Of?
Most samurai masks were made out of a combination of iron and leather, though some were made entirely of iron. By the same token, others were made entirely of leather. Most, however, used both in their construction.
Each mask’s design was different depending on the needs and desires of the samurai who would be wearing it. There were many names for samurai masks, and each of these names refers to a mask made in a distinct style. Some of the most famous types included the following:
- Somen: These masks covered the samurai’s entire face from above the forehead to below the chin. They were some of the rarest versions.
- Menpo: These were the most common samurai masks. They began beneath the eyes and covered everything from the cheekbones to below the chin.
- Happuri: These were open-faced masks that covered the forehead and the cheeks but left the rest of the face, including the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin, open and visible.
- Hanbō: These masks began at the chin and covered it and most of the samurai’s neck.
Each mask was lacquered and varnished to give it color and protect it against the elements. They were specially treated to make them waterproof, and the holes at the bottom helped keep them free from sweat inside.
Some masks had movable or removable parts, but they weren’t flexible or movable for the most part. They were constructed of sturdy materials that were meant to last. Perhaps that’s why so many samurai masks still survive today.
Samurai wore masks to intimidate their enemies, protect their faces, and hold their helmets in place. That’s one thing about samurai that Hollywood got right.