For several centuries, there was a branch of warriors among the Japanese nobility that was made up entirely of women. These were the onna-bugeisha, and Japanese history features several of them as renowned warriors more than the equal to their male counterparts. Their ranks included some of the most deadly and cunning women of all time. Read on to learn more about this mysterious order of femme fatales.
1. “Women Who Aren’t To Be Messed With” Was Already Taken
Translated into English, the term “onna-bugeisha” basically means “female martial artist.” However, these women weren’t limited to bare-handed fighting. Not only were they skilled in martial arts, but they also fought equally well with weapons.
2. Equal Opportunity Warfare
An onna-bugeisha’s purpose was to defend one’s home, clan, or honor during a time of great trouble. When the situation was most dire, the onna-bugeisha would fight alongside male samurai. This happened many times across the long years of Japanese history.
3. Room for More Than One Kind of Woman
We do, of course, have to note that despite the presence of the onna-bugeisha, they were still the exception rather than the rule within ancient Japanese culture. Traditionally, Japanese ideas of femininity called for a very submissive sort of woman, which meant that the war prowess of the onna-bugeisha was a starkly contrasting image.
4. We’ve Been Around for Ages!
Incredibly, the onna-bugeisha predate samurai! Long before the samurai were established within Japanese culture, women were trained in the ways of war so that even if the men were absent from a village, there would still be a fighting force around to protect it from raiders.
5. Warrior Queen
Recognized as an onna-bugeisha, Empress Jingū was one of the first warrior-women who appears in the ancient texts of Japan. Jingū was allegedly a regent serving in place of her deceased husband and young child. However, she proved herself an efficient ruler in her own right. One of her most famous (and controversial) achievements was her successful conquest of the Korean peninsula.
6. Wait, What?!
When we say “controversial” to describe Empress Jingū’s conquest of the Korean peninsula, we don’t just mean because of Japan’s prickly relationship with Korea over the years. We mean it’s controversial because many people dispute that Jingū’s conquest, or even Jingū herself, even existed! The conquest is never mentioned in Korean history, and various alleged facts about Jingū point to her being more of a legend than a historical figure.
7. She’s Marked in the History Books
Whether she was real or not, Empress Jingū is nevertheless impossible to ignore in the history of the onna-bugeisha, or the history of Japan. In 1881, Japan released a banknote which contained an image of her (though it was reportedly based on a female employee of Japan’s Printing Board since no images of Jingū exist). Whether you believe she existed or not, Empress Jingū was the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote.
Throughout the history of the onna-bugeisha, there was an emphasis on defending one’s home from invaders. As a result, the primary emphasis on weapons training was with ranged weapons that were launched from a defensive structure. This often meant that the onna-bugeisha wielded bows and arrows.
9. Got You in My Sights!
Besides archery and other ranged techniques, the onna-bugeisha were well known for their use of the naginata. This weapon consists of a long blade atop a pole. This cross between a sword and a spear serves well not only against cavalry, but also in keeping larger foes at bay from a distance.
10. Knowledge is Power
Aside from warfare, the onna-bugeisha were also often highly educated in other matters. Whether the subject was literature, mathematics, or science, the onna-bugeisha were certainly jills of all trades, so to speak.
11. All in the Textbook
The use of the naginata by the onna-bugeisha became a very famous symbol within Japanese culture. It was known as the signature weapon of warrior women, to the point where schools teaching the use of the naginata were set up around this idea. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, these educational institutions pushed the idea that the naginata was a woman’s weapon, and not in a derogatory manner.
12. We Remember
While the onna-bugeisha lifestyle has since faded into history, the figures who arose during its existence have never been forgotten. Women like Niijima Yae, Tomoe Gozen, and Hangaku Gozen have all been portrayed countless times in Japanese art and pop culture.
13. Time to Step Up!
In the late 15th century, Japan was torn apart by the Onin War. Over the course of 10 years, this civil war embroiled nearly the entire archipelago. During this time, with all the casualties among the male population, the onna-bugeisha became all the more valued. Women from all the different classes stepped forward to either guard their societies or go to war on either side of the conflict.
14. The Family That Fights Together
At the start of the 13th century, the Kamakura Shogunate was confronted with the Kennin Uprising. At the fort of Tossakayama, a fierce battle was being waged between armies representing both sides of this conflict. One of these armies was led by two people in particular. One was Jo Sukemori, and the other was Sukemori’s aunt, Hangaku Gozen.
15. Not Going Down Without a Fight
Although Hangaku Gozen was renowned as a warrior, she and her nephew were outnumbered more than three to one as they held the fort at Tossakayama. Eventually, despite all efforts, the fort was taken. Hangaku fought valiantly on horseback, but she was eventually wounded and captured by the enemy.
16. Who Doesn’t Love a Strong Woman?
Contrary to what you might think, Hangaku Gozen’s enemies deeply admired her for her bravery and war prowess. Even when she was taken prisoner and her cause defeated, some of the very men she’d been fighting hoped to marry her!
17. Let’s All Settle Down…
The 15th and 16th centuries saw a marked change in how Japanese society functioned, and with these changes went the previously established view of the onna-bugeisha. Where the samurai went from being warriors to bureaucrats and politicians, the onna-bugeisha became more subservient in their revised social status.
18. Knife Fight
Aside from archery or the naginata, onna-bugeisha were trained in the art known as Tantojutsu. This was a style of fighting which made use of a dagger called a tanto, later referred to as a kaiken. This fighting style was used for self-defense, and a version of it could also be learned for battle.
19. Try it Yourself!
If you’re curious about how Tantojutsu works, and how these warrior women used it to fight, you might be pleased to know that Tantojutsu is still very much a practiced art. It is common in Japan to this day and depending on where you live, you might very well be able to enroll in classes to learn it. We take no responsibility for what happens after you learn it, though!
20. Let’s Bring Them Back!
During the 17th century, there was what you might call a bit of a renaissance regarding samurai and onna-bugeisha. With the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there was a renewed interest in training women how to fight and defend themselves, their homes, and their villages.
21. We Don’t Need No Man!
During the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, an elite unit of female warriors was formed and trained extensively to be as ruthless in battle as possible. Known as the Joshitai (women’s army), they were kept separate from the command of men, being led by women.
22. You Call Me Commander!
In the late 1860s, while the United States was recovering from their Civil War, the Japanese had a civil war of their own. The Boshin War was fought between the forces of the Imperial Court and the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was fading from power. Amongst the prominent figures fighting for the shogunate was Nakano Takeko, who was leading the Joshitai at the time.