In Japan, males were not the only ones who knew how to use swords. Female samurais were just as common, and they were trained to use weapons as well as martial arts even before the samurais were established. These women were called Onna-Bugeisha, and besides their skills with the sword, they were excellent in science, mathematics, and literature.
Weaponry and Skill
Onna-Bugeisha were using Naginata, which was an iconic weapon in Japan. However, the version of the Naginata females used was slightly smaller which gave them better balance and was a better choice due to their height and strength. Women warriors also used the Kaiken dagger, a long double-edged dagger. These daggers were personal for defense in a cramped area when their movement was limited. Onna-Bugeisha had to have its dagger all the time, even when they walked with their husbands.
Moreover, the Tantojutsu system was also something they were familiar with. The female samurai learned this skill from an early age, and it is popular today as well. The purpose of the Onna-Bugeisha was to protect their family and household during the time of war or unrest. As you can conclude, there were just as skillful and important as men, which was not the case in the other parts of the world.
One of Onna-Bugeisha was Empress Jingu, a skillful woman who led an army in a conquest to Korea. Between 1180 and 1185, Japan was divided between the two ruling clans – Minamoto and Taira. These two clans were waging Genpei War, and one of the admirable female samurais was Tomoe Gozen. According to Heike Monogatari, Gozen was a woman of incredible beauty, battle skills, and intellect. She could ride a horse as well as any man, and she was a perfect archer. Moreover, she was a katana master and a competent politician. She gained the reputation as one of the most renowned generals in the country, and she was considered to be the first true general of Japan.
The stories about her fame and skill are known to scholars today. She was leading 300 Samurais against 2,000 warriors and managed to be one of five survivors. In 1184, she fought in the Battle of Awazu where she beheaded Honda no Moroshige, one of Musashi clan’s best warriors.
Hangaku Gozen was in charge of the Torisakayama fort defense with 3,000 men in her command. Unfortunately, the renowned Hojo clan brought 10,000 men, and they managed to breach the gates. Even though Gozen was wounded in the battle, she was such a striking character that some of the men she fought with proposed marriage to her. Between 15th and 17th century, Neo-Confucian philosophy was dominant and the position of both women and men changed. Women had to be obedient, and they were perceived as a bit more than mere child-bearers. However, due to their history, this was about to change. These brave women fought alongside their male counterparts, often wearing the same remarkable samurai helmet and armor to protect them in battle.
The Fall of Shogunate and Last Onna-Bugeisha
In the middle of the 17th century, schools for training with Naginata were being opened all over Japan, with the Tokugawa Shogunate in charge. Women once again assumed the role of a protector, and they were usually dealing with threats and dangers by themselves. However, this trend ended by the end of 18th century, when the Imperial Court threatened the Tokugawa clan. To combat them, Nakano Takeko was leading a special female corps.
This corps joined the Battle of Aizu, and they had full independence. Just like the Onna-Bugeishas that preceded the corps, these were all highly-intelligent and skillful women. Nakano Takeko died in the battle but only after she killed a lot of enemy warriors. She asked her sister Nakano Yuko to behead her so that she wouldn’t be a trophy to the enemy and her head was buried in the temple Aizu Bengemachi. After the battle, the Meiji Restoration Period began, and the Shogunate ended. Also, the last Onna-Bugeisha was killed.