In general, when we hear about samurai the first thing that comes to mind is warrior men. But that was not always the case, there were also samurai women. They were called onna-bugeisha (女武芸者).
Because of Japanese patriarchal society, it is not very common to talk about samurai women. Also because in relation to the number women were a minority, but a significant minority.
Samurai had the main function of fighting in order to protect castles and villages. And although it was less often, they happened to participate in battles alongside men.
Story of Onna-Bugeisha
Archaeologists have already found evidence of women on the battlefield. Excavations indicated the existence of these warriors. DNA tests were performed on 105 bodies, and of these 35 were women. In two other excavations, the result was similar.
These female warriors have their appearance during the Sengoku period (戦国時代) between the mid-fifteenth and late sixteenth centuries.
They are rarely mentioned because history has always prioritized male warriors. The main function of the onna-bugeisha was to protect the lands and villages in the absence of the warrior men.
Occasionally female warriors could participate in fights and this is proven during the Heian (平安時代 , 794 to 1185) and Kamakura ([鎌倉幕府, officially recognized between 1192, despite the period beginning in 1185) periods.
During these periods they also helped to colonize territories.
During the Restoration of the Meiji period around the nineteenth century, male and female samurai began to lose their place. One of the significant reforms in this period was organized armies, so protection by samurai was no longer necessary.
Weapons, Skills and Training
Like warrior men, samurai women also followed the teachings of the Bushido code. They were also experts in fighting daggers. Most warriors were educated in science, math, and literature.
For training they used naginatas (な ぎ な た,薙刀), similar to a spear, but with a curved blade at the tip. This weapon could even help female warriors offset their bodily disadvantage compared to men.
A warrior who stood out a lot for the use of this weapon was the Tomoe Gozen. She was a Japanese warrior who lived around 1157 to 1247. And, it was during the Genpei War that Tomoe Gozen stood out and gained fame as a warrior.
Tomoe Gozen wasn't the only female warrior who stood out, let's get to know other female warriors like Hangaku Gozen, Empress Jingū Kōgō and Nakano Takeko. But the complete story of Tomoe Gozen is already here on the website.
Empress Jingū Kōgō
There is not much information about the life of Empress Jingū Kōgō (神功天皇), the little evidence shows that she must have lived between the first century and around the year one hundred and seventy. It is likely that she was the first onna-bugeisha.
She took possession of the Japanese throne becoming empress because her husband Emperor Chuai (14th Emperor of Japan) passed away and she had to take over until her son was old enough to lead.
She was surprised by her wisdom in planning military strategies in order to invade Korea and conquer the country. And in less than a year after she took the throne, she was able to do that.
The Empress's deeds started a period of a matriarchal society in the eastern region of Japan.
However, after her son Ōjin ascended the throne, the name Jingū Kōgō was not consolidated as the 15th Sovereign of the Japanese throne. But, Jingū Kōgō reigned until the year of his death.
Hangaku Gozen (坂額御前) also known as Lady Hangaku lived during the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Kamakura period. She was the daughter of a warrior named Jō Sukekuni (城 資 国).
Hangaku was allied with the Taira clan, a powerful local clan in Echigo Province. She was known for her skills as an archer.
She and her nephew Ju Sukemori who was also a warrior teamed up to participate in the Kennin Revolt to defeat the Kamakura shogunate for being Taira's rivals. Hangaku Gozen who led and formed the army composed of three thousand soldiers.
However the opponents had many more warriors for the battle and she was wounded in the leg by an arrow.
She became a prisoner in Shogun and just didn't commit the seppuku because a soldier from Minamoto ended up falling in love with her and this caused her to be released to marry.
Nakano Takeko (中 野 竹子) was one of the most honored samurai women. She was the eldest daughter of officer Aizu and samurai Nakano Heinai. Being from an important family, she started her studies when she was just six years old. She studied martial arts, literature, calligraphy among others.
Nakano Takeko was adopted by Professor Akaoka Daisuke and started teaching martial arts and naginata.
Nakano started teaching as a naginata instructor for women and children at Aizuwakamatsu Castle in Aizu. And in this same period around 1868 she was also involved in the Boshin War with other female warriors.
This group of female warriors came to be called Jōshitai, the female army. When the opposing army noticed that the front line was made up of women, they decided to end the attacks.
But the warriors took advantage of this to attack them using their naginatas while the opponents used firearms. The Jōshitai left hundreds dead.
Despite the good strategy Nakano Takeko ended up getting shot. To be buried and not allow her enemies to violate her body to be used as a trophy, she asked her sister, Yūko, to decapitate her while in battle.
Yūko took her sister's head to the family's Hōkai temple.
What did you think of these women warriors?