While the word “samurai” is a strictly masculine term, female warriors have existed in Japan since as early as 200 AD.
Known as “Onna-Bugeisha” (literally meaning “woman warrior”), these women were trained in martial arts and strategy, and fought alongside the samurai to defend their homes, families and honour.
Centuries before the rise of the samurai class in the 12th century, onna-bugeisha were acknowledged to be every bit as strong, deadly and fearless as their male counterparts.
Here are 10 facts about the onna-bugeisha.
1. One of the first onna-bugeisha was an empress
The history of the onna-bugeisha can be traced back to Empress Jingū (169-269), one of the first female warriors in the history of Japan.
Following the death of her husband, Emperor Chūai, she took the throne and personally led an invasion of Silla – present-day Korea.
Jingū was a fearsome warrior who defied every social norm of her time; she is said to have been pregnant when she bound her body, donned men’s clothes and rode into battle.
Legend goes that she led the successful expedition without shedding a drop of blood, and continued to rule over Japan for the next 70 years until the age of 100.
In 1881, Jingū became the first woman to appear on a Japanese banknote.
2. Their main weapon was the naginata
The onna-bugeisha were trained to use a weapon specifically designed for women, called a Naginata.
The naginata was a versatile, conventional pole arm with a curved blade at the tip. Its length allowed the onna-bugeisha better balance given their smaller stature.
During the peaceful years of the Edo period, the naginata became a symbol of status and often formed part of the dowry of women of the nobility.
Later in the Meiji era, it became popular as a martial art for women; many schools focusing on the use of the naginata were created.
3. One of the most famous onna-bugeisha was Tomoe Gozen
The Genpei War (1180-85) between the rival samurai dynasties of Minamoto and Taira gave rise to one of the greatest Japanese women warriors: a young woman named Tomoe Gozen.
Tomoe Gozen (“gozen” meaning “lady”) was a legendary swordswoman whose expert talents included archery, horseback riding, and the art of the katana – the iconic sword used by the samurai.
In the 14th century ‘The Tale of Heike’, Gozen was described as:
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 was known as one of the few women warriors who engaged in offensive battle – known as onna-musha – rather than the defensive fighting more common among traditional onna-bugeisha.
On the battlefield, she was respected and trusted by her troops. In 1184, she led 300 samurai into a fierce battle against 2,000 Taira clan warriors and was one of only 5 to survive.
Later that year during the Battle of Awazu, she defeated the Musashi clan leader, decapitating him and keeping his head as a trophy.
Gozen’s reputation was so high that it is said that her leader, Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka, considered her the first true general of Japan.
4. Hōjō Masako was the first onna-bugeisha to enter politics
The wife of the first shōgun of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Hōjō Masako was the first onna-bugeisha to be a prominent player in politics.
After the death of her husband, Masako became a Buddhist nun – a traditional fate of samurai widows – but continued her involvement in politics.
She played a key role in shaping the career of her two sons, Minamoto no Yoriie and Minamoto no Sanetomo, who became the second and third shōgun.
Under the “ama-shōgun” (“nun shōgun”), laws governing the shōgun’s court allowed women equal rights of inheritance with fraternal kin.
Women gained a higher status in the household, and were allowed to control finances, maintain their homes, manage servants, and raise their children with proper samurai upbringing.
5. They belonged to the nobility
The onna-bugeisha belonged to the bushi, a noble class of feudal Japanese warriors who existed long before the term “samurai” came into usage.
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, these upper-class women were trained in the art of war and the use of the naginata, primarily to defend themselves and their homes.
In the event that their communities were overrun by enemy warriors, the onna-bugeisha were expected to fight to the end and die with honour, weapons in hand.
6. They made up a large part of the samurai
For centuries after Tomoe Gozen’s reign, the onna-bugeisha flourished and made up a large part of the samurai class.
Female warriors would protect villages and open schools across the Japanese empire to train young women in martial arts and military strategy.
Although there were many different clans spread throughout Japan, all of them included samurai warriors – and all were open to the onna-bugeisha.
Historical sources offer few accounts of the onna-bugeisha, as the traditional role of a Japanese noblewoman was restricted to homemaker and wife.
However recent research has indicated that Japanese women frequently fought in battles: remains from the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580 showed 35 out of the 105 bodies were female.
7. Female ninjas were known as Kunoichi
During the 16th century, the existence of female ninjas known as “Kunoichi” is dated. Ninjas were used as killers, spies and messengers and were trained in martial arts such as taijutsu, kenjutsu, and ninjutsu.
A historically accepted example is Mochizuki Chiyome, a poet and noblewoman who was commissioned by a warlord to create a secret all-female group of spies.
Chiyome recruited prostitutes and other wayward women, and trained them to become information gatherers, seductresses, messengers and assassins.
Over time, her underground network of kunoichi learned to disguise themselves as Shinto shrine maidens, priestesses or geisha, which allowed them to move freely and gain access to targets.
Eventually, Chiyome and her kunoichi had set up an extensive network of between 200 and 300 agents that served the Takeda clan.
8. The Battle of Aizu is considered their final stand
During the Battle of Aizu of 1868, a 21-year-old female warrior called Nakano Takeko led a group of female samurai – known as the Joshitai – against the emperor’s forces.
The daughter of a high-ranking official in the Imperial court, Takeko was highly educated and trained in martial arts and the use of the naginata.
Under her command, the Joshitai fought alongside the male samurai, killing many enemy warriors in close combat.
Takeko suffered a bullet to her chest, and with her last breath the 21-year-old requested her sister cut off her head so that her body would not be taken as an enemy trophy.
Nakano Takeko is widely considered to be the last great female samurai warrior, and the Battle of Aizu is considered the last stand of the onna-bugeisha.
Shortly after, the Shogunate – the feudal Japanese military government – fell, leaving the Imperial court to take over leadership, marking an end of an era for the samurai.
9. Their status collapsed during the Edo Period
The advent of the Edo period at the beginning of the 17th century saw a huge shift to the status of women in Japan and although women continued to fight in battles, their status was greatly diminished.
As the male samurai turned their focus away from war and towards jobs in teaching or bureaucracy, the function of the onna-bugeisha changed.
Many samurai began to view women purely as child bearers, unfit as a companion in war. Travel during the Edo period became difficult for the onna-bugeisha, as they were not allowed to do so without a male companion.
Upper-class women became pawns to dreams of success and power, and the ideals of fearless devotion and selflessness were replaced by quiet, passive, civil obedience.
10. Their legacy was buried after the 19th century
Meanwhile, Westerners began to rewrite the history of Japanese warring culture. And so the rest of the world took on the idea that samurai warriors were men.
The heroic quests of the onna-bugeisha were buried in the pages of history, and Japanese women were portrayed as submissive and subservient, clad in kimono and tightly-bound obi.