Long ago in Japan, the men and women of Yamato heritage became highly skilled in the use of both sword and spear.
Eventually, their prowess and famed code of honour, known as bushido, would lead to the development of the "Bushi" class that would make up the Samurai clans that came to dominate Japan for centuries. Many stories are told of the great swordsmanship and discipline of the mighty samurai warrior, but little is said of the women who are born into the samurai caste.
The onna-bugeisha, the female samurai, was the one left to defend the loal people of the village if the male samurai were away, or if there were too few to fend off bandits and other enemies. They were taught to be skilled in the use of the naginata, a bladed pole weapon, and in the art of tantojutsu, which is essentially knife-fighting.
Empress Jingū and the conquest of Korea
The onna-bugeisha reached their peak during the Heian and Kamakura periods of Japanese history. These prominent and powerful women took to the battlefields and sometimes even went on to lead their own clans. They continue to inspire with stories of their courage, honour and valour.
The first of the onna-bugeisha dates all the way back to the beginning of the 3rd Century. According to Japanese legend, she claimed the throne of Japan upon her husband's death in 201 CE and held it for nearly seventy years, until her death at the age of 100 in 269 CE. According to the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, Empress Jingū led an invasion of Korea and returned to Japan victorious after three years. Much of Empress Jingū's life, due to the fact that she lived 1800 years ago, is shrouded in mystery and legend. The woodblock cut above dates from 1880 and the banknote below, the first Japanese currency to depict a woman, comes from 1881. She was, however, the first in a long line of onna-bugeisha that spanned the history of the nation.
Tantojutsu - Japanese knife fighting
Empress Jingū banknote, 1881
Another of the legendary onna-bugeisha arose during the Genpei War between the Taira and the Minamoto. The Tale of the Heike, written in 1330, details the story of the famed Tomoe Gozen, master of the naginata, and servant of Minamoto no Yoritomo. During the Battle of Awazu in 1184, she rode into enemy forces, lunged at their strongest warrior, dehorsed, pinned and decapitated him. According to the Tale of the Heike, Tomoe was "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."
Tomoe Gozen defeats Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama Shigetada at the BAttle of Awazu. Woodcut from 1899.
Modern depiction of Tomoe Gozen from deviantart.
Left: 18th Century drawing by Shitomi Kengetsu.
At the end of the samurai period, when forces loyal to Emperor Meiji were taking power from the old Tokugawa Shogunate across Japan, a few brave samurai strongholds held out against this movement towards modernization. One loyal region was Aizu, where the Aizu Women's Army, or Aizu Jōshitai (娘子隊) made a courageous last stand against insurmountable odds. The leader of the Joshitai, Nakano Takeko, trained in martial arts and skilled with the naginata, led her forces against the oncoming Imperial Court. When the invaders came to take the women of Aizu alive, Nakano and her supporters used their naginata to cut them to pieces. This caused the Imperial army to open fire, wounding Nakano in the chest. In order to die like a true samurai, she asked her sister to cut off her head so that she could not be used as a trophy by the raiding army. Her head is currently buried beneath a tree at the Hokaiji Temple.