Onna-bugeisha (女武芸者?), literally "female martial artist", was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. Many 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.
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 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 fourteenth emperor of Japan, was slain in battle.
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, Jingu 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.
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.
The Genpei War (1180–1185) marked the war between the Taira and Minamoto; two very prominent and powerful Japanese clans of the late-Heian Period. During this time, the epic Heike Monogatari was written and tales of courageous and devoted samurai were recounted. Among those was Tomoe Gozen, servant of Minamoto Yoshinaka of the Minamoto clan. She assisted Yoshinaka in defending himself against the forces of his cousin, Minamoto no Yoritomo. During the Battle of Awazu on February 21, 1184, she rode into the enemy forces, flung herself on their strongest warrior, unhorsed, pinned, and decapitated him.
In the Tale of Heike, she was described as being "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."
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 paintings. 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, becoming known as "The General in Nun’s Habit". She bullied the samurai class into supporting her son, Minamoto no Yoriie, as the first Hōjō Shikken (regent) in Kamakura.
Through the collective efforts of Masako and a few political puppets, laws governing the shogun’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
Because of the influence of Neo-Confucian philosophy 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".
Despite the social view of women as being mere means to an end, they were still expected to show solace for death when it came to defending their husband's honor. A wife’s solidarity for the sake of her husband was a common and well received theme in Japanese culture. In addition to self-sacrifice, self-renunciation was also an imperative quality to Japanese woman, and in many cases still is.
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 Imperial Japanese Army of the Ogaki domain. Highly skilled at the naginata, Takeko and her corps of about 20 joined 3,000 other Aizu samurai in battle. The Hokai Temple in Aizu Bangemachi, Fukishima province contains a monument erected in her honor.
In contrast to the katana used universally by their male samurai counterparts, the most popular weapon-of-choice of onna-bugeishas are the naginata, which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip. The weapon is mainly favoured for its length, which can compensate for the strength and body size advantage of male opponents.
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.
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.
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