Onna-Bugeisha and the Truth of Samurai

Tehya Fencik

Everything you know about samurai is a lie!

Ok... maybe not everything but a lot. Like how the first samurai was a woman, and the last samurai was not Tom Cruise. My dear reader, I'm here today to reveal the truth about these forgotten women warriors. It all began in 200 C.E. when Emperor Chūai was murdered by a rebel faction, one of many in the fractured country of Wa, pre unified Japan. Okinagatarashi-Hime no Mikoto, a consort of the Emperor, fell into a rage seeing her fallen beloved. She gathered up his army and set off to defeat the rebels. She was successful but didn't stop there. She set her sights on conquering the Korean Peninsula. Legend has it that she led the battle on horseback and defeated the Korean army without spilling a drop of her people's blood, but the best of it was… she was heavily pregnant the whole time! Her successful campaign elevated her to more than a consort, she became Empress Jingu, a goddess and the first samurai. But this article is all about truth-telling, so I cannot lie to you. Historians are unsure of how accurate this account is, given that it comes from the pseudo-historical Kiki (記紀), the oldest historical text in Japan. Empress Jingu's very existence is also questionable. But what is certain is her influence on the rest of Japanese history and the history of the samurai. Her warrior prowess would spark a thousand-year-long tradition of the Onna Bugeisha. The warlord men of old can be found pretty quickly with a cursory Google search, but one must dig a little deeper to find the women, the Onna-Bugeisha. Hundreds of years before the formation of their male counterparts, the Onna Bugeisha were the first and last line of defense for their families and lands. There was no time to be a damsel in distress when you were the only person for miles trying to defend your home from another clan. They were trained in long-range warfare by using a spear sword called a naginata. They were also skilled in close-range hand-to-hand combat and always carried a long knife to cut the heads off of their enemies. Heads of enemies were kind of a big deal, like a Pokemon situation, you gotta catch all the rival clan warriors to level up.
Onna-Bugeisha and the Truth of Samurai
A colorized recreation of a photo of Takeko (a famous Onna-Bugeisha), from the 19th century.

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In the 12th century, men and women samurai were equals in every way.

They were sometimes separated due to weapon training differences but other than that they were held to the same standards. Both men and women were employed as guards and private armies by the imperial court. However, this gender equality would not last. Between the 15th and very early 16th century, known as the Sengoku Period, the image of the Onna-Bugeisha changed significantly. The status of women in Japan diminished, following Neo-Confucian philosophy. In this period, Onna-Bugeisha were often wives or daughters of noblemen, generals, and warlords. The men who were once samurais now were simple bureaucrats in the hierarchy of the Empire and their female family members suffered heavy restrictions. They were reduced to no more than pawns used to make alliances through marriage. But fear not my dear reader, underground schools and organizations emerged to preserve the Onna-Bugeisha traditions and these warrior women began to fight with their words and actions. Onna-Bugeisha like Hojo Masako, the fighting nun, turned to politics. In the 13th century, she made it possible for women to have equal rights of inheritance, allowed women to control their own money and manage their households, as well as have legal control of their children. And she was not alone in this new political battleground, women like Jukei-ni and Toshoin would become Daimyō (samurai feudal lords) in their own right ruling over their lands. Their status would ebb and flow until their final stand in the 19th century. During this time Japan was split in two: half of the country wanted to modernize and open up to the west and half of the country wanted to keep to the traditional ways. On one side you had a group of special imperial female warriors, and on the other were the last few Onna-Bugeisha who held onto tradition and resisted the west. In the end, modernization would win. These fierce warrior women would hang up their naginata forever. When historians both in and out of Japan examine the history of samurai and Japanese warring culture they often overlook the heroic quests of the onna-bugeisha and instead focus on the exaggerated representations of swaggering male Samurai and subservient Japanese women, clad in kimono and tightly-bound obi. But now you know dear reader that is simply a lie.
Ancestry UK
Onna-Bugeisha and the Truth of Samurai

Tehya Fencik

Tehya wrote for Edition 2, The Forgotten Women of History.
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