A Brief History of Japan’s Female Samurai

Photo of an actress or a geisha posing as Nakano Takeko, the famous female samurai warrior (Onna-musha) of the Aizu Domain.

Japan's Samurai women fought alongside the male samurai warriors for ages. (Image: via Public Domain)

In a number of Hollywood offerings, you have seen the fearsome Japanese Samurai warriors and their astonishing warfare skills. While a lot of people, especially in the Western nations, think of samurai warriors as only male, the truth is female samurai warriors did exist. In fact, the women warriors in the Samurai clan were as fearless as their male counterparts. It is just that their achievements are not well known. The female samurai warriors were referred to as onna-bugeisha. They were also trained to use weapons. They fought alongside the male samurai warriors for ages. 

Female Samurai warriors

The onna-bugeisha warriors used many types of weapons to combat enemies, but the main weapon was known as naginata. It was a pole arm with a blade on the end. They were also trained in tantojutsu — the art of knife fighting, and they were taught to use katana — the authentic Samurai sword with Japanese roots.

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A naginata forged by Osafune Katsumitsu, Muromachi period, 1503, Tokyo National Museum.
A naginata, the main weapon of the onna-bugeisha. (Image: SLIMHANNYA via Wikimedia Commons)

The onna-bugeisha warriors were trained to fight enemies no matter how tough the situation was. Even when their communities were overpowered by rival clan warriors, the onna-bugeisha were seen to fight till the end. A death of honor was much more desirable to them than a life of servility. Some historical references to the onna-bugeisha can be found, but those are just a fraction of what can be found about their male counterparts. 

Some well-known female Samurai warriors

The history of Japan’s female Samurai warriors can be traced back to A.D. 169-269. According to historical records, the first female warrior in Japan was Empress Jingū. She ascended the throne after the death of her spouse, Emperor Chūai, and invaded Korea. Reportedly, Jingū was a brave Samurai who defied social norms and lived on her own terms. Even when she was pregnant, she did not stop fighting. She ruled Japan for several decades. 

1880 painting by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi of empress Jingu invading Korea.
According to historical records, the first female warrior in Japan was Empress Jingū. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Tomoe Gozen was among the most celebrated onna-bugeishas. She was a brave female Samurai warrior who was skilled in katana, horseback riding, and archery. During the Genpei War (1180-85) that took place between two rival Samurai dynasties, she rose to prominence. Tomoe Gozen was famous for her offensive battle skills. Her troops respected and trusted her. She fought many fierce battles. In the famous Battle of Awazu, she killed the Musashi clan leader. While her fate after the battle remains hazy, she remains one of the most memorable female Samurai warriors.

Hōjō Masako was the onna-bugeisha who actively made an entry into the political landscape of Japan. She was the spouse of the first shogun in the Kamakura period. When her husband died, she accepted Buddhism, but she carried on with her political ambitions. Her sons, Minamoto no Sanetomo and Minamoto no Yoriie, became shoguns later on. Hangaku Gozen was another famous female Samurai warrior and she once led an army of 3,000 against a rival army of 10,000 soldiers. 

For a long time after the reign of Tomoe Gozen, the onna-bugeisha continued to flourish and they comprised a chunk of the Samurai class. The female warriors protected villages across the Japanese empire and they also safeguarded the Japanese empire and trained young women.

A painting of Tomoe Gozen in Samurai armor by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
Tomoe Gozen was celebrated as a fierce and skilled warrior. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

The onna-bugeisha warriors fought in many important battles in Japan, but the greatest was the Battle of Aizu. Nakano Takeko, a young female warrior, led a group of onna-bugeisha warriors. They fought the emperor’s forces bravely. While Takeko and her team killed many enemy warriors, she suffered a bullet wound. She is known as the last great onna-bugeisha. Her fearless acts and feats are still commemorated in the yearly Aizu Autumn Festival.

The decline

After the 17th century, during the Edo period, the decline of the onna-bugeisha began. The Samurai clans started looking at the onna-bugeisha as unfit for taking part in warfare. The role of Japanese women was reduced to service within the household and Westerners who recomposed the history and cultural heritage of Japan played a part in this. 

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