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, which literally translates to "woman warrior," was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility class. They were the daughters 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, with the popular image of Japanese women portrayed today, 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 paper.
However, onna-bugeisha didn't really rise to prominence until the Genpei War of the 1180s, when Tomoe Gozen won the war for the Minamoto clan. A legendary figure whose historical name is actually a combination of the pattern on the shoulder pads she wore ("tomoe") and a generic honorific of Japanese women ("gozen"), she was a fearsome warrior who was said to command as many as 1,000 men, refused to retreat even when her male opponents offered her the opportunity because of her status as a woman, and had her very own weapon named after her. After he success in the Genpei War, she became Japan's first true general. The end of her life, like much of the rest of it, is shrouded in mystery. Either she became a Buddhist nun and lived to the ripe age of 90, got captured by an enemy commander and forced to marry him (or worse), or walked into the sea holding her commander's head after killing all of his enemies. Whatever the case, it's certain that she went out, as she went everywhere else, with a bang.
Throughout the following handful of centuries, other onna-busheida rose to legendary status. Besides Empress Jingū and Tomoe Gozen, the most famous were Hōjō Masako and Nakano Tekeko. Hōjō Masako was the wife of a military dictator who became a nun after her husband died but continued to wield such power that she was known as the "nun shogun." Nakano Tekeko, meanwhile, lived much more recently, a veteran of civil war in Japan in the 1800s. She ran a martial arts school for women when she wasn't slaying bathhouse peeping toms. She famously asked her sister to behead her so the enemy could not take her body as a trophy after she was fatally wounded in battle, and a monument was built upon the site where her head was buried. These women's stories have formed the bases of novels, movies, and even video games, so why have so many people still never heard of them?
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. It was useful for keeping the opponent away in close quarters, and it was particularly effective against soldiers on horseback.
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-bugeisha, as the traditional masculine advantages like physical strength counted much less in ranged warfare. Some also used the kaiken, a dagger traditionally used only by samurai, which was more useful in close-quarter combat. (Even if she didn't favor the weapon, onna-bugeisha had to carry a kaiken on them at all times if they lived with their husbands.) They were also trained in a variety of martial arts and combat techniques, and as daughters of the higher classes, they were expected to be educated in the subjects of science, math, literature, and diplomacy. Basically, they had full course loads.
Though they often used different weapons, owing to their differing sizes and abilities, onna-bugeisha were trained alongside samurai, using the same methods and held to the same standards and expectations. So what happened to these fearsome warrior women?
By the 1600s, the significance of and reverence for onna-bugeisha began to diminish in the eyes of Japanese culture. They became little more than simple accessories to their samurai husbands, who were by then more figureheads than actual warriors. It was a time of great cultural turbulence in Japan, with women's roles becoming seen as largely domestic. As such, onna-bugeisha were subject to onerous restrictions and harassment when they tried to travel that made their duties overly cumbersome. Nakana Tekeko is remembered as a great women's rights leader for this reason.
It's a sad story, but it's one as old as time. So why don't these women warriors get talked about more often? Well, the legacy of onna-bugeisha was largely erased from history by Westerners who preferred to glorify the exploits of male samurai while portraying Japanese women as docile, subservient, and definitely helpless on a battlefield. They had better hope ghosts aren't real. You would not want to be haunted by some of these ladies.