#femalepioneers 6: Onna Bugeisha
Onna-bugeisha 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 samurai (bushi) 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 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.
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, many women of the samurai class learned how to handle the sword and the naginata — a blade on a long staff — primarily to defend themselves and their homes. In the event that their castle was overrun by enemy warriors, the women were expected to fight to the end and die with honour, weapons in hand. Some young women were such skilled fighters that they rode out to war beside the men, rather than sitting at home and waiting for a war to come to them.
Tomoe Gozen: The Most Famous Female Samurai
During the Genpei War from 1180 to 1185, Tomoe Gozen fought alongside her daimyo and possible husband Minamoto no Yoshinaka against the Taira and later the forces of his cousin, Minamoto no Yoritomo.
She was famous as a swordswoman, a skilled rider, and a superb archer. She was Minamoto’s first captain and took at least one enemy head during the Battle of Awazu in 1184.
Reports vary as to Tomoe Gozen’s fate. Some reports say that she died in battle, others say that she rode away from a battle carrying an enemy’s head, and disappeared. Still, others claim that she married and became a nun after her husband’s death.
Nakano Takeko (中野 竹子)
Nakano Takeko (1847–1868)was a Japanese female warrior of the Aizu domain, who fought and died during the Boshin War. She was thoroughly trained in the martial and literary arts, and was adopted by her teacher Akaoka Daisuke. After working with her adoptive father as a martial arts instructor during the 1860s, Nakano entered Aizu for the first time in 1868.
During the Battle of Aizu, she fought with a naginata, a Japanese polearm, and was the leader of an ad hoc corps of female combatants who fought in the battle independently, as the senior Aizu retainers did not allow them to fight as an official part of the domain’s army. While leading a charge against Imperial Japanese Army troops of the Ōgaki Domain, she was fatally shot in the chest. Rather than let the enemy capture her head as a trophy, she asked her sister, Yūko, to cut it off and have it buried.