There is no lack of stories about the legendary Japanese Samurai warriors in the modern culture, but most of those are only about the male Samurai. Opposite to some popular beliefs, female Samurai existed, and they were just as fierce, as well as skillful as their male counterparts.
We have a situation when women in Japan have been subjected to expectations of domesticity. The so-called onna bugeisha women were the deadliest warriors. They were strong, capable, and brave like the male warriors. All of them went through the painful process of combat training, self-defense, and usage of various weapons.
- The beginnings and history of the samurai warriors.
In the autumn of 1868, the battle was on the horizon for the samurai warriors of the Aizu clan in northern Japan. Earlier in the same year, the Satsuma samurai had staged a coup, overthrowing the Shogunate government, as well as heading power to a new emperor, the 15-year-old Mutsuhito. He did not waste a lot of time in replacing the feudal ways of the ruling Tokugawa with a radically modern state.
After a long summer of fighting all the time, the imperial forces have reached the gates of Wakamatsu castle in October that year, to defeat the resistance, besieging the stronghold with 30,000 troops. Beyond the walls, about 3,000 defiant warriors have readied themselves for the final stand.
Held to the same standards, the male, as well as the female samurai warriors were supposed to perform the same duties, so they usually fought alongside each other in the earlier periods like the Heian and Kamakura.
- The onna bugeisha women samurai warriors.
As the Aizu fought valiantly from the trenches and towers, most of the women remained behind the scenes, spending their energies in cooking, bandaging, as well as extinguishing cannonballs that pounded the castle day and night. However, for Nakano Takeko, who was an onna-bugeisha woman warrior, the front-line defense was the only course of action. As she was faced with the mighty gun-power of the imperial army, she led an unofficial unit of 20 to 30 women in a counterattack against the enemy, felling almost five opponents with her naginata blade before taking a fatal bullet to the chest. As she was dying, she asked her sister to behead her, using her last breaths, so that her body would not be taken as a trophy. She has been buried under a tree in the courtyard of the Aizu Bangmachi temple, where there is also a monument in her honor standing now.
Throughout history, a lot of Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. Still, there were also women that were warriors, just like Takeko, who were known to be brave and strong just like their male counterparts. They belonged to the bushi class, which was a noble class of feudal Japanese warriors and helped settle some new lands, defend their territory, and even had a legal right to supervise lands as stewards.
These women warriors were exceptionally skilled in combat; they were trained in the knife fighting art of tantojutsu, using the dagger, which was known as kaiken, and a popular weapon of choice among them was the naginata. Also, they were trained to use the polearm sword. Some centuries before the rise of the samurai class in the 12th century, these women were fighting in times of war to protect their families, homes, as well as their profound sense of honor.
Some period after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 – which was a new era of an imperial rule which stood for modernization, westernization, and industrialization – the Samurai class that had once bravely protected the nation, fell from the power. The legacy of the equal fearsome onna bugeisha faded from view. In the meantime, westerns rewrote the history of the warring culture of Japan, overlooking the heroic quests of onna-bugeishaand instead of it elevating exaggerated representations of swaggering male Samurai and subservient Japanese women, clad in kimono and also tightly-bound obi. However, there are those who see the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in the history of the Samurai.
The history of the onna bugeisha, which means woman warrior, can be traced back to earlier 200 AD, when the Empress Jingū, after the death of her husband, was the one that took the throne and led an invasion of Silla, or today’s Korea. Although academics speculated about her validity as a historical figure, her legend is excellent: she was a fearsome samurai warrior that defended the social norms of her time, and it was also said that she was pregnant with the future emperor when she bound her body, donned clothes for men and rode into battles.
Among the several women that were members of the samurai class that became prominent were Tomoe Gozen and Hangaku Gozen. Tomoe is best known because of her courage and loyalty, and she fought gallantly at the Battle of Awazu in 1184.
Some other female samurai warriors had the tasks to protect their homes instead of going to the battlefield. They were also trained to be skilled in some weapons, too, in order to effectively defend against invaders on horseback.
The actions of the famous female samurai warrior Nakano, as well as her band of female fighters of the Joshingun, are still commemorated today at the annual Aizu Autumn Festival. Every year in September, a group of young women wearing hakama and Shiro headbands takes part in the procession in honor of the onna bugeisha.