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Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Onna-bugeisha (女武芸者, "female martial artist") was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. These women engaged in battle, commonly alongside samurai men. They were members of the bushi (samurai) class in feudal Japan and were trained in the use of weapons to protect their household, family, and honour in times of war. Significant icons such as Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Hōjō Masako are famous examples of onna-bugeisha.


Early history[edit]

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 tantojutsu in battle. Such training ensured protection in communities that lacked male fighters. One such woman, later known as Empress Jingū (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 fourteenth emperor of Japan, was slain in battle.[1]

According to the legend, she miraculously led a Japanese conquest of Korea without shedding a drop of blood. Despite controversies surrounding her existence and her accomplishments, she was an example of the onna bugeisha in its entirety. Years after her death, Jingū was able to transcend the socioeconomic structures that were instilled in Japan. 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.[2]

Rokō Segawa IV as Tomoe Gozen

During the earlier Heian and Kamakura periods, women who were prominent on the battlefield were the exception rather than the rule. Japanese ideals of femininity predisposed most women to powerlessness, in conflict with a female warrior role.[3]

Kamakura Period[edit]

The Genpei War (1180–1185) marked the war between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans; two very prominent and powerful Japanese clans of the late-Heian period. The epic The Tale of the Heike was composed in the early 13th century in order to commemorate the stories of courageous and devoted samurai.[4] Among those was Tomoe Gozen, servant of Minamoto no Yoshinaka of the Minamoto clan. She assisted Yoshinaka in defending himself against the forces of his cousin, Minamoto no Yoritomo, especially during the Battle of Awazu on February 21, 1184.

In The Tale of the Heike, written at the beginning of 14th century, she was described:

... especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swords-woman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.[3]

Although she was not proven to be a historical figure, Tomoe Gozen has impacted much of the warrior class, including many traditional Naginata schools. Her actions in battle also received much attention in the arts plays such as Tomoe no Monogatari and various ukiyo-e. As time passed, the influence of onna-bugeisha saw its way from paintings to politics.

After the Heike were thwarted towards the western provinces of Japan, the Kamakura shogunate (1185–1333) was soon established under the rule of Minamoto no Yoritomo. After he passed, his wife, Hōjō Masako, acting in the early years of the Hōjō regency, became the first onna-bugeisha to be a prominent player in politics. Masako became a Buddhist nun, a traditional fate of samurai widows, and continued her involvement in politics, influencing the fates of her sons Minamoto no Yoriie and Minamoto no Sanetomo, the second and third shōgun, and of the Hōjō faction at the shōguns' court.[5]

Through the collective efforts of Masako and a few political puppets, laws governing the shōgun's court in the early 13th century allowed women equal rights of inheritance with fraternal kin. Even though the primary role of women in ancient Japan continued to be the support to their family and their husbands, they acquired a higher status in the household. These laws also allowed Japanese women to control finances, bequeath property, maintain their homes, manage servants, and raise their children with proper, loyal, samurai upbringing. Japanese women were also expected to defend their homes in times of war.

Edo Period and beyond[edit]

Because of the influence of Neo-Confucianism and the established marriage market of the Edo period (1600–1868), the status of the onna-bugeisha diminished significantly. The function of onna-bugeisha changed in addition to their husbands. Samurai were no longer concerned with battles and war, they were bureaucrats. Women, specifically daughters of most upper class households, were soon pawns to dreams of success and power. The roaring ideals of fearless devotion and selflessness were gradually replaced by quiet, passive, civil obedience.

Travel during the Edo period was demanding and unsettling for many female samurai (because of heavy restrictions). They always had to be accompanied by a man, since they were not allowed to travel by themselves. Additionally, they had to possess specific permits, establishing their business and motives. Samurai women also received much harassment from officials who manned inspection checkpoints.

The onset of the 17th century marked a significant transformation in the social acceptance of women in Japan. Many samurai viewed women purely as child bearers; the concept of a woman being a fit companion for war was no longer conceivable. The relationship between a husband and wife could be correlated to that of a lord and his vassal. "Husbands and wives did not even customarily sleep together. The husband would visit his wife to initiate any sexual activity and afterwards would retire to his own room".[attribution needed][6]

In 1868, during the Battle of Aizu, a part of the Boshin War, Nakano Takeko, a member of the Aizu clan, was recruited to become leader of a female corps who fought against the onslaught of 20,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army of the Ōgaki Domain. Highly skilled at the naginata, Takeko and her corps of about 20 joined 3000 other Aizu samurai in battle. The Hōkai-ji in Aizubange, Fukushima province contains a monument erected in her honor. Less-celebrated but no less remarkable would be the efforts of Yamamoto Yaeko, who served as a gunnery fighter defending Aizuwakamatsu Castle during the Battle of Aizu. She would later be one of the first civil leaders for women's rights in Japan.


The most popular weapon-of-choice of onna-bugeisha is the naginata, which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip. The weapon is mainly favored for its length, which can compensate for the strength and body size advantage of male opponents.[7]

The naginata has a niche between the katana and the yari, which is rather effective in close quarter melee when the opponent is kept at bay, and is also relatively efficient against cavalry. Through its use by many legendary samurai women, the naginata has been propelled as the iconic image of a woman warrior. During the Edo Period, many schools focusing on the use of the naginata were created and perpetuated its association with women.

Additionally, as most of the time their primary purpose as onna-bugeisha was to safeguard their homes from marauders, emphasis was laid on ranged weapons to be shot from defensive structures.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ History of Japanese. Bank of Japan 1996–2009 Archived 2007-12-14 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ History of Japanese. Bank of Japan 1996–2009 Archived 2007-12-14 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ a b Women Warriors of Japan: Early History[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ McCullough, Helen (1988). The Tale of the Heike. Standford, CA: Standford UP. p. 6.
  5. ^ Hōjō Masako
  6. ^ Women Warriors of Japan: The Edo Period, an Enforced Peace
  7. ^ a b Women Warriors of Japan: The Edo Period, an Enforced Peace[permanent dead link]


  • Szczepanski, K. (2009). Samurai Women of Japan. Library of Congress Prints Collection. About.com: Asian History. 3 December 2009.
  • Beasley, W. G. (1999). The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. University of California Press.
  • Amdur, Ellis. (2009). Women Warriors of Japan: The Role of Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History. Koryu Books, 2009.
  • Jansen, Marius B. (2000) The Making of Modern Japan. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2000
  • Yamakawa Kikue; trans Nakai, Kate Wildman (2001) Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life. Stanford University Press 2001

External links[edit]