Japan’s Female Samurai Who Feared Nothing: Onna-Bugeisha

Samurai warriors are commonly (or always) associated with men. However, there were just as strong and fearsome female samurai: the Onna-bugeisha.

Long before the Western world began to view Samurai warriors as inherently male, there was an impressive group of Female Samurai. These were every bit as powerful, smart and deadly as their male counterparts. They were the Onna-bugeisha (meaning female martial artist). Like men, they trained in self-defense and offensive manoeuvres. They used a weapon specifically designed for women – Naginata, which allowed them better balance given their smaller stature. For years, they fought alongside the male samurai, were held to the same standards, and expected to perform the same duties.

onna bugeisha tapa
Onna Bugeisha’s holding naginata – swords specially designed for women to better fit their posture and balance them in the fight.

 

 

Empress Jingu

Empress Jingu - Female Samurai Onna-Bugeisha
Empress Jingu (c. AD 169-269) was consort to Emperor Chuai and served as regent of Japan from 209 when Chuai died until 269 when her son Ojin ascended.

One of the first female samurai warriors was Empress Jingu. In 200 AD, Jingu personally organised and led a battle, a conquest of Korea. Despite the widespread traditional idea that women were second to men and pursued the role of stay-at-home caretaker, there were exceptions for women like Jingu. Strong and independent women were encouraged to fight alongside the male samurai.

 

Tomoe Gozen 

Empress Jingu fighting in Korea

After Empress Jingu paved the way, another Onna-bugeisha rose through the ranks. Between 1180 and 1185, a war broke out between two ruling Japanese clans. The Genpei War involved the Minamoto and the Tiara, clans who equally believed they should rule over the other. Eventually, the Minamoto rose to prominence, but they might not have had it not been for Onna-Bugeisha: Tomoe Gozen.

If Empress Jingu was a 10 in scale of fearlessness, Tomoe Gozen was an 11. She had an incredible talent on the battlefield and an extremely high intellect. Tomoe Gozen, appeared in The Tale of the Heike (often called the “Japanese Iliad”). She has been described as “especially beautiful,” and also as “a remarkably strong archer… as a swords-woman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.”

In battle, she displayed a knack for archery and horseback riding, as well as mastery of the katana (a long, traditional samurai sword). Outside the battlefield, she was just as fearsome. Her troops listened to her command, trusting her instincts. She engaged in politics and word of her competency quickly spread through Japan. Before long, the master of the Minamoto clan named Tomoe Gozen Japan’s first true general. She shined in that role too.

In 1184, she led 300 samurai into battle against 2,000 opposing Tiara clan warriors and was one of only five to survive. Later that year, during the Battle of Awazu, she defeated the Musashi clan’s most prominent warrior (Honda no Moroshige). She decapitated him and kept his head as a trophy.

Unfortunately, Tomoe Gozen’s fate after the battle is not known. Some say she stayed and fought bravely to the death. Others claim she rode away on horseback, carrying Moroshige’s head. Though no reports of her surfaced after the battle, a few claim that she married a fellow samurai, and became a nun after his death.

 

Golden times for female samurai 

For centuries after Tomoe Gozen’s reign, the Onna-bugeisha flourished. Female warriors were making up a large part of the samurai. They protected villages and opened schools around the Japanese Empire to train young women in the art of war and the use of the Naginata. All of the many clans with samurai warriors spread throughout Japan included were open to the Onna-bugeisha.

 

Nakano Takeko and the Joshitai

During a period of unrest between the ruling Tokugawa clan and the Imperial court in 1868, a group of special female warriors known as the Joshitai was created. Nakano Takeko, a 21 year old Onna-bugeisha, ruled this group.

Nakano Takeko
A recreation of a photo of Nakano Takeko, from the 19th century.

Takeko was the daughter of a high ranking official in the Imperial court. She was highly educated and trained in martial arts and Naginata usage.

Under her command, the Joshitai moved to follow the male samurai into the Battle of Aizu. They fought bravely alongside the male warriors, killing a number of opposing male warriors in close combat. Unfortunately, during battle she received a shot to the heart which cost her life.

However, in her last breath, she asked her sister to behead her, so that her body wouldn’t be taken as an enemy trophy. Her sister acquiesced to her request, burying her head in the roots of a pine tree in the temple Aizo Bangemachi.  In her honour,  there is now a monument there.

 

The end of the Onna-Bugeisha

Most consider Takeko the last great female samurai warrior. Similarly, the last stand of the Onna-bugeisha is the Battle of Aizu. Shortly after, the Shogunate (the feudal Japanese military government) fell, leaving the Imperial court to take over leadership.

 

Though the Onna-bugeisha ended their reign, for the most part, after Takeko, women warriors remained. Through the 1800s, women continued to defy traditional gender roles and participated in battles. Meanwhile, the rest of the world took on the idea that samurai warriors were big, strong men, and that women were submissive, effectively burying the legendary legacy of the Onna-bugeisha in the pages of history.

That’s why we, at Japana, aim to promote and to rekindle once again the glory of Onna Bugeishas. We hope their bravery and fearlessness will inspire many generations to come.

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