Forgotten Samurai: Onna-bugeisha

Aug 5, 2020Blog, Culture, Inspiration

Forgotten Samurai: Onna-bugeisha

While most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of domesticity, onna-bugeisha women warriors were known to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts.

It never ceases to amazing me, some of the long forgotten stories in Japan.

I also find it very curious that something as extraordinary as the history of the onna-bugeisha was almost relegated to forgotten annals of history.

Fortunately, many of the stories of these extraordinary women have been found, and we can now see the fantastic tales of bravery and sacrifice of these female warriors.

Indeed, even the Japanese when asked if they know of the onna-bugeisha, one will more often than not draws blank stares.

Try it with your Japanese friends, ask them if they know of the onna-bugeisha.

One could say the very first onna-bugeisha was Empress Jingu, who reigned over Japan 201 to 269 CE.EmpressJinguInKorea-01The onna-bugeisha learned to use naginata (polearm sword), kaiken (20-25 cm dagger), and the art of tantojutsu (a traditional Japanese knife fighting) in battle. This training also ensured protection of the communities that lacked male fighters.

Meanwhile, Westerners rewrote the history of Japanese warring culture after the end of the Second World War, and omitted the heroic quests of the onna-bugeisha and elevating, instead, the exaggerated representations of swaggering male Samurai and subservient Japanese women, clad in kimono and tightly-bound obi, as their official narrative of the history of Japan.

One can say the exploits of Japanese female warriors is the greatest untold story in samurai history, as throughout history, most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of marriage, domesticity, and motherhood.

However, there also existed women warriors like Nakano Takeko who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts. They belonged to the bushi class, a noble class of feudal Japanese warriors, and helped settle new lands, defend their territory, and even had a legal right to supervise lands.Nakano TakekoCenturies before the rise of the samurai class in the 12th century, these women would fight in times of war to protect their homes, families, and to maintain their deep sense of honour.

Historically, the Battle of Aizu is widely considered to be the last stand of the onna-bugeisha, though their legacy lives on today in small but significant ways.

In the autumn of 1868, and for the samurai warriors of the Aizu clan in northern Japan, battle was on the horizon. Earlier in the year, the Satsuma samurai had staged a coup, overthrowing the Shogunate government and handed power to a new emperor, 15-year-old Mutsuhito (Emperor Meji), who wasted no time in replacing the feudal ways of the ruling Tokugawa with a radically modern state. This period is known as the Meji Restoration.

After a long summer of fighting, the imperial forces of Emperor Meiji reached the gates of Wakamatsu castle in October to quash the resistance, besieging the stronghold with 30,000 troops.

Tsuruga-joBeyond its walls, 3,000 defiant warriors readied themselves for the final stand.

Most of the women remained behind the scenes, cooking, bandaging, and extinguishing the cannonballs which pounded the castle day and night.

However, for Nakano Takeko, an onna-bugeisha, front line defence was the only course of action for her and her warrior sisters.

Faced with the destructive gun-power of Emperor Meiji’s powerful and westernized imperial army, Takeko led an unofficial unit of 20-30 women in a counter-attack against the enemy, felling at least five opponents with her naginata blade before taking a fatal bullet to the chest.

With her dying breaths, Takeko asked her sister to behead her, so that her body wouldn’t be taken as a trophy.
Onna_bugeisha_-_ritratto_sedutoHow about that for a rock solid constitution?

She was buried under a tree in the courtyard of the Aizu Bangmachi temple, where a monument now stands in her honor.

There is also an annual Aizu Autumn Festival, where Japanese girls take part in a procession to honor the memory of Nakano Takeko.

Regardless of the outside image of Japanese women, the power of our Japanese sisters can never be underestimated!

This is evidenced by the incredible story of valour and honour of the powerful onna-bugeisha.Onna_bugeisha_Ishi-jo_wife_of_Oboshi_Yoshio Kokon_hime_kagami_Tomoe_onna_by_Tsukioka_Yoshitoshi


Here is a wonderful infographic of Nakano Takeko from the “Rejected Princesses” home page (English only).