Japanese sword and spear warriors are legendary but did you know that they also included some women, like the Empress Jingu who lived approximately from 169 to 269 A.D. We tend to think of the word samurai as being masculine, meaning that there can't be any female samurai. But that isn't the case. For thousands of years, certain upper-class Japanese women taught martial skills and fought in battles right alongside their male counterparts.
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, many women of the samurai class learned how to use a sword and the naginata, a blade on a long staff that was used to defend themselves and their homes. If their castle was overrun by enemies, these samurai women were expected to fight to the death with honor, their weapons in hand. The more skilled young women rode to war beside the men, rather than sit at home and wait for the war to come to them. Here are some of the most notable samurai women.
1. Probably the most famous lady samurai is Tomoe Gozen. During the Genpai War of 1180 to 1185, this beautiful young woman fought alongside her daimyo (in feudal Japan, a great lord) and possible husband, Minamoto no Yoritomo. Tomoe Gozen (gozen is a title meaning lady) was famous as a skilled swordswoman, horse rider, and superb archer. She was Minamoto's first captain and took at least one enemy head during the Battle of Awazu in 1184. Minimoto dies during this battle and reports as to the fate of Tomoe Gozen vary greatly.
2. Another famous lady samurai of the Genpai War is Hangaku Gozen also known as Itagaki. She was allied with the Taira clan who lost the war. Later she joined the kennin Uprising in 1201. She created an army and her troops of 3,000 in defense of Fort Torisakayama. Hangaku's army surrendered after she was wounded by an arrow. She was captured and taken prisoner. Although the shogun could have ordered to to commit seppuku (another term for hara-kiri), one of Minomoto's soldiers fell in love with her was granted permission to marry her. They had at least one daughter and reports say she lived a rather peaceful life.
3. The Boshin War of 1868-1869 was another civil war that inspired more samurai-class women to take up their swords. As the daughter and wife of shogunate officials in Aizu, Yamakawa Futaba was trained to fight and consequently participated in the defense of the Tsuruga Castle against the Emperor's forces. After a month-long seige, the Aizu region surrendered. many of the warriors were taken prisoner and committed seppuku. But Yamakawa Futaba survived and went on to lead the push for improved education for women and girls in Japan.
4. Another Aizu defender was Nakano Takeko whose short life spanned only from 1847- to 1868. Sjhe was the daughter of another Aizu official. She was trained in martial arts and worked as an instructor during her late teens. During the battle of Aizu, Nakano Takeko led a corp of female samurai against the Emperor's forces. She fought bravely with a naginata, the preferred weapon for Japanese women warriors. She was leading a charge against the Emperor's troops when she took a bullet to the chest. Knowing that she would die, she ordered her sister to cut off her head and save it for the enemy. Her sister complied and Nakano Takeko's head was later buried under a tree.
Anyone who knows me, or has read a few of these blogs, knows that I am a peace-loving, anti-war kind of frog. But I do also love history and learning from our varied and colorful pasts. History can teach us a great deal. And while I will never advocate war, I do think it is important to honor these beautiful and brave young women who fought courageously for what they believed in. They have remained hidden in history for far too long.