The female samurai who once sowed terror on the battlefield

Japanese female samurai were trained and performed duties like men, even commanding battles and bringing resounding victories.

While the world’s public generally assumes that Japan’s samurai were originally composed of men, female samurai, also known as onna-bugeisha, have in fact been associated with men for many years, with varying degrees of strength and intensity. effectiveness in combat is not inferior.

The standards and duties for female samurai were similar to those of men. In addition, they are trained to use a weapon designed specifically for women called the naginata, which is a long staff with a sharp curved blade at the end, which helps them maintain better balance.

Female samurai belong to the noble martial class in Japan, which existed long before the term samurai was used. From the 12th to 19th centuries, martial arts women were taught the art of fighting and how to use naginata, mainly to protect themselves and their families.

One of the first female samurai was Empress Jingu, who acted as regent to run Japan after her husband’s death. In the year 200, she personally organized and led the battle for the Korean peninsula, and returned three years later in victory.

Painting of Empress Jingu arriving on the Korean peninsula by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  Photo: Waseda University Museum.

Painting of Empress Jingu arriving on the Korean peninsula by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Photo: Waseda University Museum.

Despite the prevailing traditional notion in Japan that women are second to men, must be submissive and stay at home to take care of the family, women like Empress Jingu are still allowed to be the exception. They were considered strong, independent, and encouraged to fight alongside male samurai.

After Empress Jingu paved the way, Tomoe Gozen, another female samurai, also gradually rose to an important position. From 1180 to 1185, a war for power broke out between the two ruling families of Japan, the Minamoto and the Tiara. The Minamoto clan eventually won, leading to the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate. Tomoe Gozen was the key factor in the Minamoto’s victory.

Considered to be more outstanding than Empress Jingu, Tomoe Gozen possesses incredible skill on the battlefield, as well as top-notch intellect. In battle, she often displays excellent horsemanship and archery, and is proficient in the katana, the traditional samurai longsword.

In addition to the battlefield, Tomoe Gozen was also a person full of authority. The soldiers all obeyed her orders and trusted her talent. After entering politics, Tomoe Gozen’s fame quickly spread throughout Japan. Not long after, the head of the Minamoto clan named Tomoe Gozen as shogun.

Tomoe Gozen does not disappoint. In 1184, she commanded 300 samurai to fight 2,000 soldiers of the Tiara clan and was one of only 5 survivors. That same year, at the Battle of Awazu, the Minamoto female general defeated Honda no Moroshige, the most prominent warrior in the Musashi clan.

However, little is known about Tomoe Gozen after this battle. Some say that she stayed and fought to the death. Others say she rode away, taking Moroshige’s head with her. Although Tomoe Gozen was never seen after the battle, some say she married a samurai and became a nun after her husband died.

Tomoe Gozen (centre) in a painting depicting the Battle of Awazu.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Tomoe Gozen (centre) in a painting depicting the Battle of Awazu. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In the centuries after Tomoe Gozen’s time, female samurai flourished. They made up a significant part of the samurai ranks, helped defend their villages, and opened more schools across the country to train young girls in the art of fighting and the use of naginata. Although many clans coexisted throughout Japan, all had samurai forces and welcomed women to join.

In 1868, conflict broke out between the Tokugawa clan that ruled the country and the imperial court, which played a symbolic role under the shogunate. A special group of female warriors named Joshitai is formed, led by 21-year-old female samurai Nakano Takeko. She was taught martial arts and used naginata proficiently, and was highly educated.

Under the leadership of Takeko, the Joshitai group accompanies the male samurai to participate in the Battle of Aizu, with the task of protecting the Tokugawa faction. They fought bravely, killing many soldiers of the imperial faction in close combat.

However, Takeko ends up being hit by a bullet in the chest. Before taking her last breath, the female samurai asked her sister, also a member of the Joshitai group, to cut off her head so that the enemy could not take it as a trophy. Takeko’s younger sister accepted and buried her head under a pine tree in Aizo Bangemachi Shrine. A memorial was later built here in memory of Takeko.

Takeko is considered the last great female samurai and their era also ended with the Battle of Aizu. Not long after, the shogunate fell, and leadership belonged to the imperial court, marking the end of the era of the samurai. However, even though female samurai no longer existed, women continued to participate in later battles, despite traditional notions of gender.

Because the rest of the world often views samurai as big men and Japanese women are easy to follow, the heroic history of female samurai is gradually forgotten.

Luster (Follow ATI, History Hits)

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