Onna-bugeisha – the Japanese female warriors


As time passed, the influence of onna-bugeisha saw its way from paintings to politics

Onna-bugeisha was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. Many women engaged in battle, commonly alongside samurai men. They were members of the bushi (samurai) class in feudal Japan. They were trained in the use of weapons to protect their household, family, and honor in times of war. Significant icons such as Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Hōjō Masako are famous examples of onna bugeisha.

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Long before the emergence of the renowned samurai class, Japanese fighters were highly trained to wield a sword and spear. Women learned to use naginata, kaiken, and the art of tanto Jutsu in battle. Such training ensured protection in communities that lacked male fighters. One such woman, later known as Empress Jingu (c. 169-269 AD), used her skills to inspire economic and social change. She was legendarily recognized as the onna bugeisha who led an invasion of Korea in 200 AD after her husband Emperor Chūai, the fourteenth emperor of Japan, was slain in battle.

According to the legend, she miraculously led a Japanese conquest of Korea without shedding a drop of blood. Despite controversies surrounding her existence and her accomplishments, she was an example of the onna bugeisha in its entirety. Years after her death, Jingu was able to transcend the socioeconomic structures that were instilled in Japan. In 1881, Empress Jingū became the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote. Designed to stop counterfeiting, her image was printed on oblong pape

The Genpei War (1180–1185) marked the war between the Taira and Minamoto; two very prominent and powerful Japanese clans of the late-Heian Period. During this time, the epic Heike Monogatari was written and tales of courageous and devoted samurai were recounted. Among those was Tomoe Gozen, servant of Minamoto Yoshinaka of the Minamoto clan. She assisted Yoshinaka in defending himself against the forces of his cousin, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

During the Battle of Awazu on February 21, 1184, she rode into the enemy forces. Flung herself on their strongest warrior, unhorsed, pinned, and decapitated him. In the Tale she was described as being “especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. Was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swords-woman 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 oversize sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”

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Although she was not proven to be a historical figure. Tomoe Gozen has impacted much of the warrior class, including many traditional Naginata schools. Her actions in battle also received much attention in the arts plays such as Tomoe no Monogatari and various ukiyo paintings. As time passed, the influence of onna-bugeisha saw its way from paintings to politics.

In contrast to the katana used universally by their male samurai counterparts, the most popular weapon-of-choice of onna-bugeishas are the naginata. Which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip. The weapon is mainly favored for its length, which can compensate for the strength and body size advantage of male opponents. Moreover, the naginata has a niche right between the katana and the yari, which is rather effective in close quarter melee when the opponent is kept at bay. And is also relatively efficient against cavalry. Through its use by many legendary samurai women, the naginata has been propelled as the iconic image of a woman warrior.

During the Edo Period, many schools focusing on the use of the naginata were created and perpetuated its association with women.

Besides naginata, ranged weaponry such as bows and arrows would also be used by onna-bugeishas, as the traditional masculine advantages like physical strength counted much less in ranged warfare.

japanese female warrior

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