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Shields were considered useful in Europe until the development of full plate armor. Despite the fact that they never had anything comparable to plate armor, shield use was apparently abandoned by the Edo period. The freestanding tate was used to protect archers, but aside from this, shields don't seem to be used at all.

Some argue that shield use was obsolete by the Edo period because they were clumsy, and because Japan lacked Hellenistic influences. While I'm not sure I agree with that, I am unable to evaluate that assertion.

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up vote 23 down vote accepted

Wow, where to start.

Basically, ignore anything in the previous answer regarding Europe and shields.

As far European metallurgy goes, pattern welding was in use as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The technique continued to be used up until about the end of the viking era (mid 11th century) when quenching and tempering basically took over.

As a general rule, shields got smaller as armour got better and became more common. Far from being a secondary defence in melee, shields are not clumsy and are excellent for both attack and defense. As I said, they fell out of use in Europe because improvements in body armour made them superfluous. NOT because your off-hand can be put to better use. Unless you are extremely well trained, using two swords is simply an invitation for a humiliating death. I think it's important to note that the wakizashi was a back up sword, used for close quarters/indoor fighting and beheading defeated opponents.

But getting back to the question (finally), shields were used in ancient Japan but fell out of favour. I think the main reason for this was the predilection of Japanese warriors for two handed weapons, most notably the spear and bow. Both of these are important battlefield weapons, for obvious reasons, and were the preferred weapons of samurai.

So basically, two handed spears and bows were hugely popular in Japan and hand held shields aren't particularly useful for archers and spearmen.

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The katana is a hand-and-a-half sword. Those with sufficient strength and dexterity hold a second sword in the off hand (as Miyamota Musashi). Those without use it as a two-handed sword and block opposing blows with the blade and hilt of the sword as in modern fencing. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:26
If I remember correctly, Musashi didn't usually use two swords when fighting duals. As I stated, it takes a LOT of training to fight effectively with two swords and even then, as battlefield technique it is of dubious value. In a well balanced sword, strength is less of an issue. Using a hand and half (or bastard) sword one handed sacrifices speed, control and leverage. – Hux Oct 4 '13 at 12:13
Oh, and I'm well aware of greek hoplites and phalanxes. In fact, it was with them in mind (as well as viking shield and spear techniques) that I added the proviso of 2 handed spears. I'll happily admit I could be wrong about this, but I don't think Japanese warriors went in for 1 handed spears much. Any correction on this matter would be gratefully recieved – Hux Oct 4 '13 at 12:19
@Pieter Geerkens - Japanese battle was based around single combat - a samurai picking an opponent and going after them. Phalanx, maniple and hoplite warfare depended on massed infantry in close formation, where a shield is right handy. Also, note that Musashi was a duelist and not a particularly accomplished soldier: two-handed technique was not practical in combat. Katanas were not practical in combat - pole-arms were far more common and effective primary weapons on the battlefield in medieval Japanese warfare. – RI Swamp Yankee Oct 4 '13 at 13:16
@PieterGeerkens Musashi had hardly any serious accomplishment on battlefields. He was more a duelist and stab-in-the-back kind of guy. Also, the actual battlefield swords, the tachis are generally larger and different shape than katanas. Katanas became fashion more during the Edo period, and while the name technically refers to the way it is tied up, the actual swords are generally different, too. – Greg May 11 '15 at 5:16

Because they used a wakizashi instead. The inferior quality of medieval and pre-medieval European metallurgy (compared to Japanese) may have been the cause of the real question:

Why did Europeans continue to use a shield so late, instead of the more efficient use of a sword-catcher, second sword, or buckler?
[edit] Or a second hand on the main sword to steady and strengthen it.

When modern European metallurgy started to catch up with Japanese, modern fencing styles had begun developing as well, resulting in the shield being incorporated in the sword itself, as it's hilt.

It is also important that a shield is primarily a defence against missile fire, and only secondarily a defence against melee weapons. As noted here (page 107) the quality of Japanese armour combined, with the failure to utilize crossbows and the relative weakness of their strung bows, meant that a samurai was well protected against missile fire by his armour:

Japanese bushi confronted very different technological as well as geographical and organizational circumstances. To begin with, they were forced to make do with bows distinctly inferior to those available on the continent. The kiyune and fusetake-yumi of the tenth to twelfth centuries were particularly weak and, used in conjunction with the heavy oyoiroi armors favoured by early medieval samurai, forced warriors to shoot only at very close range - usually less than 10 metres - and to target with precision the gaps and weak points in the armour of specific opponents.

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This surprises me. Can you provide references on your claim that Japanese metallurgy was better than medieval and pre-medieval European? – Sardathrion May 22 '14 at 7:34
Of course he can't. This answer is total nonsense. – Evan Harper Sep 27 '14 at 10:07
Here is a detailed comparison of what is believed to be typical high-end Viking, Damascene, and Japanese sword qualities of the Medieval period: tameshigiri.ca/2014/01/21/razor-edged-3-comparing-metallurgy – Pieter Geerkens Sep 28 '14 at 14:36
Japanese did use shields. See here: books.google.com.au/… – deathlock Oct 13 '14 at 19:06
@TylerDurden: I am afraid that anecdotal evidence is worthless. – Sardathrion Jun 19 '15 at 6:48

Pole arms/spears were the favored weapon on a true battlefield for 95% of cultures. Knight, samurai, Greeks, etc. The Romans are a bit of an exception in that the pilim wasn't their primary. But a soldier would still own a pole arm.

A sword is more like a pistol. A reliable side arm for close quarters or if your primary weapon breaks (or jams.) but when a man with a rifle meets a man with a pistol, the man with the pistol is a dead man. Just aim for the heart.

Swords were also used in Japanese duels as a ceremonial weapon. Another reason to use a sword is because theres a risk of getting into a fight and you want to be prepared but you aren't for sure entering a battle and can't carry a spear all day.

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The pilum is a projectile weapon, not a pole arm. In the early republic the third line, the hastati used a long spear. – Oldcat May 21 '14 at 21:56

armor basically does the same job as a shield, and japanese armor is extremely advanced even without the use of metals, plus the ashigaru were most of the time given the long spear like the pike but minor differences, i forget the name but anyway, or the bow, some were bands of raiders that used swords, taken from fallen foes, and like the samurai following suit, no shield, i would just sum it up to its a different world, just like the feeling when you are exposed to another culture or area, country basically, as much as you may have read and learned from it, once you experience it, its another world because it just is unique.

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You should perhaps edit this into your other answer and delete this one. – Steve Bird Jun 18 '15 at 8:05

The reason is most likely very simple, as stated before shields are primerily an arrow defense. But in order to make a good shield you need raw hide and glue, two things the Japanese didn't have much of.

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This answer would be improved by references. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 30 '15 at 10:57

Late on the comment i know but, from what i gather*- evolution on the way of war runs slightly parallel with that of the native american indians, mainly the iroquous(vaguely) since both use mobility as the primary stratagim by geographical regions, neighbouring tribes/clans, weapon technology, principals etc...native americans would be best example so, mainly mobility would suit raid, ambushes etc, the iroquos had alot of forest, better for ambushes and so shields would usefull still since they fought alot in hand to hand combat but overall, just not worth its as it interferes with the primary, way of war, mobility, this basic concept in itself is a root for which all the factors go in like, shields hitting tree branches, materials, way of thinking etc. The samurai developed armor which has the primary function of a shield but also does not interfere with their weaponry technology/military thinking/military requirments, realizing just now that their are, countless reason why not to use a shield in war and why they didnt... last big example is as with the europeans introducing gunpowder to the native americans, even if they decided to use shields in war, it would be irrelevant, or the japanese emporer forbids the use of shields, or that shields promote defensive temperments, or maybe to block without skill, is the way of the coward and not a true warrior, not worthy...and finally, perhaps its the influence of the greeks and lack of that, like the lemmings- where one goes they all go. I think ill just settle with "just because" is why they didnt use shields lol

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Your answer would be better served with some paragraph breaks and some references. Your comparison with the native Americans seems to be very tenuous (using the word "vaguely" when introducing the concept is hardly a convincing argument). Finally, "just because" is effectively saying "I don't know", in which case the rest of the answer is somewhat redundant. – Steve Bird Jun 18 '15 at 8:03
Some more capital letters would help too. Please see the help center, especially How to answer. – andy256 Jun 18 '15 at 9:27

We may read what Whitaker has related in his "A Complete System of Universal History" (1821) about Jedso (Hokkaido):

Their weapons are bows, arrows, and lances, and a kind of short scymetar. On some occasions they use poisoned arrows, being choleric, quarrelsome, and revengefull. Instead of shield or cuirass, they wear coats made of small, thin laths.

Charlotte Salway, a famous sinologist, wrote:

The mighty sword and arrows were the chief defensive weapons. These they made in endless forms and fashions to suit all requirements—for distant practice or hand-to-hand fighting. Generals carried flat and closed fans, for giving direction on the battle-field or for use as a shield at close quarters.

In general, there were several factors which discourage the use of shields. Firstly, metal was relatively more expensive in Japan than medieval Europe. Therefore, what metal they had tended to be worked to higher quality and used in offensive weapons. It would have been seen as wasteful to the Japanese to use metal on a shield, since it could be made into something much more valuable: a weapon.

A second factor derives from the first. Since the Japanese lavished more attention on their steel it tended to be higher quality. Good quality steel can cut through any typical shield. A shield that could withstand a well made sword would be very heavy and expensive, completely ineconomical. Early knights used shields because they often fought peasants who used clubs and rocks.

The third factor is philosophical. Japan from 1608 was in the great peace of the Shogunate, so practical war technology was secondary to politics and etiquette. This led to a sword-centered philosophy. Salway writes:

Arms were in great request during the turbulent times, when the Minamoto and Taira clans contended for the right of governing the people in a military sense; but when Ieyasu settled the long dispute and restored tranquillity, the beautifying of swords and sword furniture became a matter of great interest to all privileged to carry these protective weapons. In the sword was centred all the pride of the wearer; it became his dearest friend, the guardian of his honour as well as his greatest treasure.... Upon the sword, as upon everything else which these Orientals produce, labour was abundantly lavished; every portion received minute attention—-the guard, the blade, the hilt, the scabbard, down to the smallest accessories. Not only was it an appendage of dress in the daytime, but it was carefully laid aside in a suitable resting-place at night; and in the living-room of every house was seen a raised dais, with a stand specially provided for the purpose of holding the sword.

A samurai would have considered use of a shield, even when facing arrows or stones, as a dishonor because it would seem cowardly or self-serving; in other words a shield is inconsistent with the principles of bushido.

Also, just to make the point concerning the quality of Japanese steel, even today it is the best. For example, the best shears in the world are all from Japan. Here is an example from Naruto, one of the better makers:

Naruto shears

That's right, $2000 for a pair of scissors. And yes, they cut through medieval European shields like butter.

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The edit diminishes the value of the answer. It is not legitimate to conclude anything about historical technical skills based on an observation of contemporary technical skills. Formal citations and dates would improve the answer and permit the student to understand the conflicting opinions. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 18 '15 at 19:27
@MarkC.Wallace You obviously don't work in the trades. Believe or it not, technology is extremely culturally dependent. English and German and Swiss and Swedish machinists and steel workers do the same things they have been doing for literally hundreds of years, I josh you not. Each culture has its own practices and they just keep doing the same thing. American steel makers still do stuff they were doing in colonial times, not kidding. 200 hundred years from now, I guarantee you, the best scissors will STILL be made in Japan. – Tyler Durden Jun 18 '15 at 19:50
@TylerDurden Can you give reference for katanas (tachi) cutting through shields in battle situation? Or scissors, if you like those ones better... Also, mind to share which trade is it you one has to be involved to be considered in metallurgy? – Greg Jun 19 '15 at 5:35
How about this: you go buy some medieval shield from an antiquities dealer. They are made of wood and thin strips of wrought iron. I will get a nice katana with a 700 BHN edge. If the shield holds up against my sword I will pay you $25,000 + whatever you paid for the shield in cash from my bank account. If my sword turns your shield into shashimi then you pay me $5,000 for wasting my valuable time proving to you what anybody who knows anything about arms and armor already knows. – Tyler Durden Jun 19 '15 at 11:22

I think the comment is valid, I've always thought that shields weren't used based on the honor culture of Samuri - and considered cowardly to hide behind. Because they didn't regularly do battle with external enemies fighting could have been reputation based?

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Welcome to History.SE! You may be right, but this is more like a comment than an answer. Its okay for comments to end with a question mark, but answers are generally better sourced/researched than this. Once you get to 50 reputation, you can comment. – two sheds Nov 16 '14 at 22:31

well first of all samurai used two hands to weld a katana cant hold a shield at the same time. the second thing is they were not cowards to hide behind shields they were straight up fighters.

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We are looking for scholarship, not argumentative judgemental opinions – Mark C. Wallace Sep 26 '14 at 23:39

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