J sends me a family gift, a helmet, given to her husband when he was on big business for a small Korean start-up in the 1980’s. Today, that start-up is a multibillion-dollar Korean enterprise. Asian business-people are known to show respect with meaningful gifts to compatriots, and this particular gift is filled with metaphor.
Hats, headgear, helmets of all kinds Asian denote rank. For example, a gat is a traditional wide brimmed hat worn with traditional hanbok (clothing) during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lower officials wore a Jegwan of gold cloth, or if in mourning, a white cloth. Government officials wore a Samo with extended earflaps.
Hats like J’s, called by the Japanese name “Kabuto,” were found in Koran tombs before the 5th century. The style made its way to Japan and topped the heads of the rising Samurai class. These were combat helmets, worn as a symbol of honor in China, Japan, and Korea.
The height of the Kabuto is said to be those of the 17th century: heavy, protective, and filled with symbolism, they represented a sign of prowess on the battlefield. We begin to understand the relationship between this gift and the combative world of male-dominated big business. J’s helmet, however, is a symbolic Kabuto, made of delicate silks and paper. The back neckguard imitates chain link mail. The workmanship of the mail determined rank, riveted mail for mounted soldiers, interlaced for foot soldiers. The lowest soldiers wore a simple Hatchi, an unadorned helmet.
Kabuto, along with the German Stahlhem, inspired the headgear of Star War’s Darth Vader. His flat back neck guard mirrored the chainmail covering called Shikoro.
To give such a gift to a fellow businessman, a fellow warrior, fighting in the rough world of business, suggested a hearty level of respect given to a brother in arms. To honor J’s husband in the 1980’s, a future highly successful businessman, a young Korean “road warrior,” (to use a phrase I hear to describe a hungry young business-person), offered J’s husband this gift. It has taken J 30 years to ask – why this hat? What did this gift mean?
By the Edo period (17th century), Kabuto use visual language to distinguish a warrior’s family, rank, ferocity, as well as a warrior’s spirit guide. These symbols located at the sides of the head, the back, and the front. Crests, created in papier mache, adorned the front to represent a warrior’s family clan. The crest, called a datemono or tatemono, is represented on J’s helmet as a little lion at the front between the eyes. If these symbols were rendered in a futuristic, mythic, or surreal fashion, they often reached far above the forehead. This type of strange helmet is called an Eboshi Kabuto.
A common spirit animal, the deer, was represented by massive high arched horns, the Kuwagata. We see a small suggestion of Kuwagata on J’s decorative helmet. The deer in Asian mythology is a solar symbol, as well as a symbol that reflects a nomadic culture, a being that connects the earth and the sky. Horns often suggest the missing solar disk held by the two horns.
Kabuto had cheek protectors in the form of wing-like curling ‘ears’ called Fukigaeshi. J’s Kabuto’s ears are made of pierced paper over silk, a nod to the carved wood, metal or bone found on 17th century Kabuto. Fur and feathers often decorated these Kabuto: when mounted, a fully armored and helmeted warrior must have seemed a formidable nightmare.
A small hole at the top of the Kabuto, as we see on J’s helmet, was the seat of the God of War, Hachiman. If the warrior wore a topknot, this hole was functional as well. Designed to echo the design and patterns of the warrior’s armor and cloak, the Kabuto was attached to the body armor by a gleaming rope of silk, elaborately knotted, called a Shinobi-no-o, essentially a strap and a chin guard.
This gift was ‘made-to-order for J’s husband by his Korean compatriot in business, I believe, because this is not a mass produced object. I can therefore only guess at the value, and I am guessing $2,000. J’s family displays it in a Lucite box. Now they know why it holds such meaning. J’s husband, over the years, has followed the growing and now huge profit of his colleague’s business with much interest.
If you are a fan of Kabuto, you may order a baseball cap in this style online!
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter