Remembering warrior women of Japan


Remembering warrior women of Japan

by: Kim Suchek | .
. | .
published: March 07, 2013

Hello military community,

March is Women’s History Month, so all this month I’m writing about great woman from the Asia Pacific region. This week, I have the pleasure of writing about Japan and the wonderful culture and history of female warriors there. As an extra bonus for me, I got to share my research with my daughter Cheyenne who loves Japanese culture and plans to travel there some day.

Between the 12th and 19th centuries, many women of the samurai class learned how to handle the sword and the “naginata” (a glaive or bladed staff) primarily to defend themselves and their homes. In the event their castle was overrun by enemy warriors, these women were expected to fight to the end and die with honor – weapons in hand.  Some young women were such skilled fighters that they even rode out to war beside the men instead of waiting home for them to return.

The term “samurai” is a masculine word; so this term was not given to these women. But certain upper class Japanese women learned martial skills, fought and honored this way of life. They were members of feudal Japan’s samurai class, but instead called “onna-bugeisha.”They were a divergence from the traditional housewife, and many had a significant impact on Japan’s history. Here are some of the more well-known onna-bugeisha:

Tomoe Gozen  (1157-1247): While countless other women were at times forced to take up arms, Tomoe Gozen (Lady Tomoe) seems to have been a consummate warrior. She was married and/or an attendant to Kiso (Minamoto) Yoshinaka, who in 1184 took Kyoto after winning the Battle of Kurikawa. She fought in wars and is said to have been fair and beautiful. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and reputed to be worth 1,000 swordsmen. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill, riding unscathed down perilous descents.

Whenever a battle was imminent, Youshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a might bow. At the Battle of Awazu, Tomoe was one of the last five of the Kiso standing. Accounts vary: She either died there, fled reluctantly as her husband ordered (after beheading an enemy soldier) and/or later became a Buddhist nun.

Hangaku Gozen: Another famous onna-bugeisha of the Genpei War, Hanaku Gozen was also known as “Itagaki.” She fought in the Kennin Uprising of 1201 to overthrow the new Kanakura Shogunate. She also raised and led an army of 3,000 against more than 10,000 Kamakura soldiers in defense of Fort Torisakayama. Her army surrendered after she was wounded by an arrow; she was captured and taken to the shogun as a prisoner. Although the shogun could have ordered her to commit seppuku, one of Minamoto’s soldiers fell in love with the captive, and he was given permission to marry her instead. Together they had one daughter.

Futaba Yamakawa (1844-1909): The daughter and the wife of shogunate officials in Aizu, Futaba  Yamakawa fought against the Meji Restoration of 1868 which, among other things, sought to abolish the samurai class. She participated in the defense of Tsurauga Castle against the Emperor’s forces. When the castle’s defenses were breached, many of the defenders committed “seppuku.” Yamakawa survived, and went on to lead the drive to improve education for women and girls in Japan.

Takeko Nakano (1847-1868): The daughter of another Aizu official, Nakano Takeko was trained in the martial arts, and worked as an instructor during her late teens. During the Battle of Aizu, she led a corps of onna – bugeisha against the Emperor’s forces. She fought with a naginata. Takeko was leading a charge against the imperial troops when she took a bullet to her chest. Knowing that she would die, the 21 year old warrior ordered her sister Yuko to cut off her head and save it from the enemy. Yuko did as she asked, and Nakano Takeko’s head was buried under a tree at Holaiji Temple.

This I gathered from a death poem left by another female defender of the besieged castle: “Each time I die and am reborn in the world I wish to return as a stalwart warrior.”

In history, warriors are accorded literary immortality; their deeds sung of by future generations. These women are among them. It was an honor reading and writing about them.

Blessing from my family to yours,

Kimberly Suchek

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