The forgotten tales of the female samurai

Written by Tom | 25th September 2020

In the Western context, the term samurai has become synonymous with the armour-laden male warrior of the feudal elite. But female samurai warriors, known as the onna-bugeisha, were once just as prominent. These women were trained in martial arts to protect communities that lacked male defenders. History has long obscured their existence, but the stories of their heroics are beginning to resurface. 

Legend has it that back in 200 CE something quite unheard of happened. Emperor Chūai, then the ruling monarch, died unexpectedly in battle, allegedly for disobeying a spirit's — known as a kami — wish to invade Korea. But that wasn't the unusual part. 

His wife, known as Empress Jingu in the stories, was enraged by his death and vowed to avenge him. According to the Nihon Shoki (History of Japan), Jingu sought out and killed the rebels who murdered her husband. Her bloodlust not yet satisfied, she then led an army into battle in the conquest of 'the promised land', now known as Korea. While many of the actual dates and happenings are historically controversial and considered the stuff of legends, the tale of Jingu left a mark on Japanese society and gave rise to the first example of the onna-bugeisha - literally translated as the woman warrior.

The onna-bugeisha

Contrary to contemporary takes on Japanese society, which have often neglected women's role outside of the home, the onna-bugeisha were once an important part of feudal Japan. They belonged to the bushi class and beyond looking after their household and land (they assumed the role of stewards known as jito), they also had a duty to protect it. Like their male counterparts, they were trained in martial arts, wielding weapons such as the naginata (a long polearm sword with a curved scythe) and the kaiken dagger, while being well-versed in the art of knife-fighting known as tantōjutsu. Many of these weapons were designed for women who specialized in distance fighting and could stay nimble when facing physically stronger opponents. 

Women were trained in the martial arts, often wielding a long polearm sword known as a naginata. Wikimedia Commons,

According to Rochelle Nowaki in "Women Warriors of Early Japan", the dearth of information on female warriors was not due to them lacking in numbers, but the rapidly changing society of the time. “The historical depictions of these females are uncommon,” writes Nowaki. “Because of the changes that grew out of the political and societal turbulence starting in the Kamakura Period. The apparent 'paucity of references indicates that women constituted a distinct minority of warriors' but the opposite was more probable as evidence recording their accomplishments were lost to warring practices of the time ”. 

The Empresses of Japan

While the legend of Jingu is a tantalizing one, there's reason to find truth in her battle-minded ways as the pioneering onna-bugeisha. In Stephen Turnbull's 'Samurai Women 1184–1877', he describes the rise of Himiko, an alleged sorceress but more probably a form of high priestess or shaman, who ruled alongside a male counterpart. This was a pattern of the time, where a woman would take on the clerical role and the man the administrative. Yet, Turnbull notes, there was evidence to suggest that women like her did play a more significant role than this. "An archaeological investigation of the tombs of the 4th-century female rulers have revealed the presence of armours and weapons, so it is possible that they led troops into battle, just as the Jingu legend". 

For two centuries, Japan saw a number of women rule and fight. Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the 5th and 6th centuries, Japan witnessed the advent of women rulers, with eight empresses in total, followed later by the rise of celebrated women warriors, such as Tomoe Gozen and Hangaku Gozen. It was only until the 12th century, when the samurai class updated the status quo, that women began to take a back seat in the domain of war and ruling. 

The onna-musha

There were two kinds of onna-bugeisha - those that defended the household, and those who took part in an offensive battle. These women were known as onna-musha, women such as Tomoe Gozen. 

Tomoe Gozen was one of the most honored female warriors in Japanese history. Wikimedia Commons.

Tomoe Gozen, or Lady Tomoe, is one of the most revered female figures in Japanese history and an example of the onna-musha. In an epic account known as The Tale of the Heike, written in the 14th century, she is described as “especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot ... Whenever a battle was imminent, [Lord] Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armour, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valour than any of his other warriors. "

Her rise came in the Battle of Kurikaradani during the Genpei War (1180-1185) between the Taira and Minamoto clans. According to lore, Tomoe fought in the Minamoto clan, leading 300 samurais to victory against 2,000 warriors of the Taira clan, including prominent onna-musha, Hangaku Gozen. This was a pivotal moment in Japanese history as it marked the establishment of the first shogunate, known as the Kamakura shogunate. 

A woodblock representation of Tomoe Gozen by  Yōshū Chikanobu, a celebrated ukiyo-e artist. Wikimedia Commons.

Nowaki writes that Tomoe's last recorded battle was at the Battle of Awazu, where she'd already confirmed herself as Japan's resident headhunter. She cemented this when, upon witnessing the mortal wounding of her lord, “lay in wait for an enemy. And there appeared one famous for his strength throughout the province of Musashi, Onda no Hachiro Morishige, with thirty horsemen. Tomoe charged in among them, went straight to Onda no Hachiro, fiercely seized him and pinned his head on the pommel of her saddle, then wrenched it around, cut it off, and tossed it away ”. 

Tomoe faded from public view after that, but other onna-musha, such as the girl warrior Nakano Takeko, followed in her footsteps. Tomoe is remembered to this day, widely considered to be the founding figure of naginata fighting. 

Fighting a traditional role

The women of Japan fought battles on every front. As the samurai class took over, the household gradually became their main arena. The onset of the Edo Period at the start of the 17th century saw the onna-bugeisha face further setbacks, as a result of the Neo-Confucian philosophy and the importance of this placed on marriage versus skills. Male samurai retired from fighting and instead became bureaucrats, while women were banned from travelling and fighting. A revival of interest in female samurai and the moral training associated with naginata fighting provided some respite for women during the Tokugawa period but was short-lived. In fact, an ad-hoc female warrior group, led by Nakano Takekko, who fought and died in the Battle of Aizu (1868), is widely regarded as the last stand for the onna-bugeisha. 

Onna-bugeisha fought many a battle and perhaps none were more brutal than the one to stay remembered. Wikimedia Commons.

That same year, the Meiji Restoration marked the start of the Meiji era, during which Japan underwent rapid modernization. The samurai class fell from power, with many assuming roles in new governmental posts, their military privileges now gone. But Japan still valorized the samurai, including its female warriors. 

By 1881, Empress Jingu became the first woman to feature on a Japanese banknote. While her real face was never profiled due to a lack of available sources, the acknowledgement cemented her legacy and heralded a renewed interest in her and the fearsome warriors that were the onna-bugeisha. Though they exist today solely in the pages of history, their fighting days long concluded, the only battle that remains is the one left for us to fight. The one that threatens to render them forgotten.


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