Onna-bugeisha (女武芸者, "female martial artist") was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. These women engaged in battle alongside samurai men mostly in times of need. They were members of the bushi (samurai) 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 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.
According to the legend, she miraculously led a Japanese conquest of Korea without shedding a drop of blood. Despite controversies surrounding her existence and her accomplishments, she was an example of the onna bugeisha in its entirety. Years after her death, Jingū was able to transcend the socioeconomic structures that were instilled in Japan. In 1881, Empress Jingū became the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote. Designed to stop counterfeiting, her image was printed on oblong paper.
The Genpei War (1180–1185) marked the war between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans; two very prominent and powerful Japanese clans of the late-Heian period. The epic The Tale of the Heike was composed in the early 13th century in order to commemorate the stories of courageous and devoted samurai. Among those was Tomoe Gozen, servant of Minamoto no Yoshinaka of the Minamoto clan. She assisted Yoshinaka in defending himself against the forces of his cousin, Minamoto no Yoritomo, especially during the Battle of Awazu on February 21, 1184.
In The Tale of the Heike, written at the beginning of 14th century, she was described:
... 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.
Although she was not proven to be a historical figure, Tomoe Gozen has impacted much of the warrior class, including many traditional Naginata schools. Her actions in battle also received much attention in the arts plays such as Tomoe no Monogatari and various ukiyo-e. As time passed, the influence of onna-bugeisha saw its way from paintings to politics.
Another famous female general of the Genpei War was Hangaku Gozen. While Tomoe Gozen was an ally of the Minamoto clan, Hangaku allied with the Taira clan. The existence of these two prominent female generals confirms that the status of women during this time was still less unequal than future periods. Several other women are supposed to have acted as samurai during this period, but many of them have been omitted from history.
In ages past, it was more common to see women become reigning empresses, this would change in the future during the Meiji restoration. Throughout Japanese history, women, while not generally becoming de jure chiefs of a samurai clan, several de facto ruled their clans.
After the Heike were thwarted towards the western provinces of Japan, the Kamakura shogunate (1185–1333) was soon established under the rule of Minamoto no Yoritomo. After he passed, his wife, Hōjō Masako, acting in the early years of the Hōjō regency, became the first onna-bugeisha to be a prominent player in politics. Masako became a Buddhist nun, a traditional fate of samurai widows, and continued her involvement in politics, influencing the fates of her sons Minamoto no Yoriie and Minamoto no Sanetomo, the second and third shōgun, and of the Hōjō faction at the shōguns' court.
Through the collective efforts of Masako and a few political puppets, laws governing the shōgun's court in the early 13th century allowed women equal rights of inheritance with fraternal kin. Even though the primary role of women in ancient Japan continued to be the support to their family and their husbands, they acquired a higher status in the household. These laws also allowed Japanese women to control finances, bequeath property, maintain their homes, manage servants, and raise their children with proper, loyal, samurai upbringing. Japanese women were also expected to defend their homes in times of war.
During the Ashikaga Shogunate, due to tensions between the shogunate retainers, Japan goes to war again. In 1460, when shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa abdicated his position to his younger brother Ashikaga Yoshimi, Hino Tomiko (Yoshimasa's wife) was strongly against this decision. Tomiko sought political and military support to rule as regent until the birth of her son, she secured the support of Yamana Sōzen and other leaders of powerful samurai clans. Then she went to war against Yoshimasa and his supporters, especially the Hosokawa clan. This dispute for succession started the Ōnin War (1467-1477) and led to the begin of the Sengoku period.
In the Azuchi–Momoyama period several daimyos took charge of their own affairs and fought against each other by territory, women of noble clans and even peasant women members of Ikkō-ikki, Ikkō-shu, Saika Ikki and others Ikki sects went to the battlefields. In 1569, Ichikawa no Tsubone, the wife of a Mori family retainer from western Japan. When her husband was absent from the campaign, she assumed responsibility for the defense of Konomine castle with her armed ladies-in-waiting. Attacks on the yamashiro (the mountaintop castles), the characteristic fortress of the daimyo, have provided many unwanted opportunities for women to engage in defense and suffer the ultimate sacrifice if the castle falls. Women participated in battles until the unification of Japan by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1591 several women defended Kunohe Castle even when it was on fire in the Kunohe Rebellion. Suicide inside a burning castle may have been the last act of loyalty to a samurai-class woman.
During the Sengoku period there are several accounts of women actively on the battlefield, such as the case of Myorin who inspired the people to fought against 3,000 Shimazu soldiers, Kaihime who fought against the Toyotomi clan in the Siege of Oshi (1590), Onamihime who became the representative leader of the Nikaidō clan and fought in various battles against her nephew Date Masamune. Akai Teruko, who became famous for fighting until she was 76 years old and became known as ''The Strongest Woman in the Warring States Period''. The heroic Tsuruhime, who is said to be the ''Joan of Arc of Japan'', is one of the several examples of how the Onna-bugeisha played a crucial role in japanese history.
Japanese women were educated to become wives and mothers, although most women knew about politics, martial arts and diplomacy, they were not allowed to succeed clan leadership. However, there were exceptions, Ii Naotora took over the clan leadership after the death of all men of the Ii family, her efforts as a leader made her clan independent and she became a Daimyō. There were many noble women with great political influence in their clans, even becoming the de facto leader, but only a few were engaged in battles.
In the 16th century there were units consisting only of women, as was the case of Ikeda Sen who led 200 women musketeers (Teppo unit) in the Battle of Shizugatake and Battle of Komaki-Nagakute. Otazu no kata fought alongside 18 armed maids against Tokugawa Ieyasu's troops. Ueno Tsuruhime led thirty-four women in a suicidal charge against the Mōri army. Tachibana Ginchiyo, leader of the Tachibana clan fought with her female troops in the Kyushu Campaign (1586) and in the Siege of Yanagawa (1600) she organized a resistance formed by nuns against the advance of the Eastern Army. These warrior women are presumed to be a minority, but recent studies show that women have always been on the battlefield. The samurai women were not unique to the castle's defense, but also traveled with other men to conquer territories.
During this era, the existence of female Ninjas (Kunoichi) is dated, their training differed from the training given to male ninjas, although they also had a core in common as they trained in taijutsu, kenjutsu, ninjutsu skills. A historically accepted example is Mochizuki Chiyome, a 16th-century noble descendant who was commissioned by warlord Takeda Shingen to recruit women to create a secret network of hundreds of spies.
It is believed that many more women participated in battles than those written in historical records. For example, DNA tests on 105 bodies excavated from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 revealed that 35 of them were women. Other excavations were made in areas where battles took place away from castles. Several female casualties in sieges are common, but according to recent studies show that 30% of the corpses of battles away from castles were women. According to Stephen Turnbull, the details of the excavation confirm the Onna-bugeishas were almost certainly present in the battlefields.
Edo Period and beyond
Because of the influence of Edo neo-Confucianism (1600–1868), the status of the onna-bugeisha diminished significantly. The function of onna-bugeisha changed in addition to their husbands. Samurai were no longer concerned with battles and war, they were bureaucrats. Women, specifically daughters of most upper class households, were soon pawns to dreams of success and power. The roaring ideals of fearless devotion and selflessness were gradually replaced by quiet, passive, civil obedience.
Travel during the Edo period was demanding and unsettling for many female samurai (because of heavy restrictions). They always had to be accompanied by a man, since they were not allowed to travel by themselves. Additionally, they had to possess specific permits, establishing their business and motives. Samurai women also received much harassment from officials who manned inspection checkpoints.
The onset of the 17th century marked a significant transformation in the social acceptance of women in Japan. Many samurai viewed women purely as child bearers; the concept of a woman being a fit companion for war was no longer conceivable. The relationship between a husband and wife could be correlated to that of a lord and his vassal. "Husbands and wives did not even customarily sleep together. The husband would visit his wife to initiate any sexual activity and afterwards would retire to his own room".
Although women learned exclusively Naginata handling techniques, some women broke traditionalism and learned different techniques such as Kenjutsu. Sasaki Rui and Nakazawa Koto are examples of women who became prominent swordswomen in Edo period. During this time, female-led kenjutsu schools become commonplace, although traditionally the leadership of these schools is inherited patrilinely.
In 1868, during the Battle of Aizu, a part of the Boshin War, Nakano Takeko, a member of the Aizu clan, was recruited to become leader of a female corps Jōshitai (娘子隊 Girls's Army). who fought against the onslaught of 20,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army of the Ōgaki Domain. Highly skilled at the naginata, Takeko and her corps of about 20 joined 3000 other Aizu samurai in battle. The Hōkai-ji in Aizubange, Fukushima province contains a monument erected in her honor. Less-celebrated but no less remarkable would be the efforts of Yamamoto Yaeko, Matsudaira Teru and Yamakawa Futaba, who served as fighter defending Aizuwakamatsu Castle during the Battle of Aizu. Yaeko would later be one of the first civil leaders for women's rights in Japan.
The most popular weapon-of-choice of onna-bugeisha is the naginata, which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip. The weapon is mainly favored for its length, which can compensate for the strength and body size advantage of male opponents.
The naginata has a niche between the katana and the yari, which is rather effective in close quarter melee when the opponent is kept at bay, and is also relatively efficient against cavalry. Through its use by many legendary samurai women, the naginata has been propelled as the iconic image of a woman warrior. During the Edo Period, many schools focusing on the use of the naginata were created and perpetuated its association with women.
The image of samurai women continues to be impactful in martial arts, historical novels, books and popular culture in general. Like the kunoichis (female ninja) and Geishas, the Onna-bugeisha's conduct is seen as the ideal of a Japanese women in movies, animations and TV series. In western, the Onna-bugeishas gained popularity when the historical documentary Samurai Warrior Queens aired on the Smithsonian Channel. Several other channels reprised the documentary. The 56th NHK taiga drama, Onna Jōshu Naotora it was the first NHK drama where the female protagonist is the head of a samurai clan. The 52nd NHK taiga drama, Yae no Sakura focuses on Niijima Yae, a woman warrior who fought in Boshin War, this drama portrays Nakano Takeko, Matsudaira Teru and others onna-bugeishas. Other taiga dramas portray famous onna-bugeishas, Hōjō Masako and Tomoe Gozen are on the Yoshitsune (TV series), broadcast in 2005.
In Japan, Tomoe Gozen and Nakano Takeko influenced naginata schools and their techniques. Whether formed by men or women, these schools usually revere the Onna-bugeishas. During the annual Aizu Autumn Festival, a group of young girls wearing hakama and shiro headbands take part in the procession, commemorating the actions of Nakano and the Jōshitai (Girls's Army). Other important examples are Yamakawa Futaba and Niijima Yae, who become symbols of the struggle for Japanese women's rights. Some of the onna-bugeishas have become symbolic of a city or prefecture, Ii Naotora and Tachibana Ginchiyo are often celebrated at Hamamatsu and Yanagawa festivals respectively. The warrior nun Myorin, is celebrated in the Tsurusaki region of the Ōita city, Ōhōri Tsuruhime is the protagonist of various local folklore and festivals on Ōmishima island. Several other samurai-class women are celebrated in pop culture, commerce and folklore.
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