“Samurai” usually brings forth a vision of a guy in traditional Japanese feudal armour with several swords and a scary disposition. While many samurai were certainly great warriors and warlords, the term actually refers to a class of people in Japan, which, of course, includes women. The bushi class in feudal Japan were the highest class, with only the Emperor, the Shogun and the Daimyo (who were bushi or samurai class, but were the land holding lords) above them. As with many things in Japan, the class system dictated much in the way of etiquette, expectation and responsibility. This applied to women of the samurai class also.
Female samurai were called onna-bugeisha 女武芸者 or female martial artist (as a direct translation). They were highly trained in martial arts, and some fought in battles. Many samurai class women did not become warriors but they were trained to protect their families, their honour and to defend their homes if their husbands were engaged in battle, elsewhere. Despite this, they were usually quite powerless, as their position was regarded well below that of their husbands. These women were expected to show humility, subservience, obedience and loyalty. They were also required to manage the household, care for the children (but not indulge them), and also care for their elderly in-laws. These women were forbidden to travel alone, they had to be chaperoned and they required permits, official documentation proving they had their husband’s permission to travel. During the Sengoku period, samurai woman were expected to wash and prepare the decapitated heads of enemies to be presented to the victorious generals.
There are a number of women who did accompany the men into battle. Again, like the female ninja, it is hard to ascertain fact from folk tale, but the stories are wonderful, even if they are not 100% historically accurate.
Tomoe Gozen was a warrior of the late 12th century. She served Minamoto no Yoshinaka and was perhaps his concubine, or maybe even his wife. Most female warriors fought with the naginata, a long handled sword, however Tomoe Gozen’s weapons of choice were the long sword and a bow and arrow. She led several battles and was involved in the events preceding the establishment of the first shogunate of Japan. She is said to have beheaded several warriors at the Battle of Awazu and is considered the first ever general of Japan.
Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.
— The Tale of the Heike
Nakano Takeko was born in April of 1847. She was born in Edo (current day Tokyo) and was highly intelligent, so trained in both martial and literary arts. She fought in the Battle of Aizu, leading an all female corps of combatants, who were not recognised by the senior (male) retainers. Both her mother and sister were also in the corps and it was retroactively named the Joshitai, or “Girl’s Army”. Nakano Takeko was killed by members of the Japanese Imperial Army and she had asked her sister, if this were to happen, to cut her head off and bury it under a pine tree to save it being captured by her enemies.
These women were clearly fierce and fearless and strong, but still had very few rights and not a lot of freedom. Their lack of personal power over their lives is intriguing. I will continue to explore the role of historical Japanese women and the impact of these women on current attitudes toward women in Japan today.