Onna-Bugeisha: Female Samurai Warriors of Feudal Japan, 1800s
Feudal Japan may have been a man's world, but there were plenty of women fighting in it. Onna-bugeisha was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. They were the daughter of samurai clans or wives of samurai trained in the art of combat, either to defend their homes when their husbands went to war or in battle themselves.
It might seem bizarre now, but many women in feudal Japan engaged in battle, commonly alongside samurai men. In fact, battle scene forensics have shown that up to 30% of remains are female. Why does history seldom mention these heroines?
Long before the emergence of the renowned samurai class, Japanese fighters were highly trained to wield a sword and spear. Women learned to use naginata, kaiken, and the art of tanto Jutsu in battle. Such training ensured protection in communities that lacked male fighters.
One such woman, later known as Empress Jingu (c. 169--269 AD), used her skills to inspire economic and social change. She was legendarily recognized as the onna-bugeisha who led an invasion of Korea in 200 AD after her husband Emperor Chūai, the 14th emperor of Japan, was slain in battle.
Despite controversies surrounding her existence and her accomplishments, she was a prime example of the onna-bugeisha. In 1881, Empress Jingū became the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote. Designed to stop counterfeiting, her image was printed on oblong pape.
Other famous onna-bugeisha were Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Hōjō Masako.
In contrast to the katana used universally by their male samurai counterparts, the most popular weapon of choice of onna-bugeishas is the naginata, which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip.
Through its use by many legendary samurai women, the naginata has been propelled to the status of iconic image associated with a woman warrior. During the Edo Period, many schools focusing on the use of the naginata were created and perpetuated its association with women.
Besides naginata, ranged weaponry such as bows and arrows would also be used by onna-bugeishas, as the traditional masculine advantages like physical strength counted much less in ranged warfare.