It was the autumn of 1868, and for the samurai warriors of the Aizu clan in northern Japan, battle was on the horizon. Earlier in the year, the Satsuma samurai had staged a coup, overthrowing the Shogunate government and handing power to a new emperor, 15-year-old Mutsuhito, who was wasting no time in replacing the feudal ways of the ruling Tokugawa with a radically modern state. After a long summer of fighting, imperial forces reached the gates of Wakamatsu castle in October to quash the resistance, besieging the stronghold with 30,000 troops. Beyond its walls, 3,000 defiant warriors readied themselves for the final stand.
As the Aizu fought valiantly from the towers and trenches, most women remained behind the scenes, ploughing their energies into cooking, bandaging, and extinguishing cannonballs that pounded the castle day and night. But for Nakano Takeko, an onna-bugeisha woman warrior, front line defense was the only course of action. Faced with the mighty gun-power of the imperial army, Takeko led an unofficial unit of 20-30 women in a counter-attack against the enemy, felling at least five opponents with her naginata blade before taking a fatal bullet to the chest. With her dying breaths, Takeko asked her sister to behead her, so that her body wouldn’t be taken as a trophy. She was buried under a tree in the courtyard of the Aizu Bangmachi temple, where a monument now stands in her honor.
Throughout history, most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of marriage, domesticity, and motherhood, but there also existed women warriors like Takeko who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts. They belonged to the bushi class, a noble class of feudal Japanese warriors, and helped settle new lands, defend their territory, and even had a legal right to supervise lands as jito (stewards). They were exceptionally skilled in combat; trained in the use of the Kaiken dagger, the naginata, the polearm sword, and the art of tantōjutsu knife fighting. Centuries before the rise of the samurai class in the 12th century, these women would fight in times of war to protect their homes, families, and deep sense of honor.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868—a new era of imperial rule that stood for modernization, industrialization, and Westernization—the Samurai class who had once bravely protected the nation fell from power, and the legacy of the equally fearsome onna-bugeisha faded from view. Meanwhile, Westerners rewrote the history of Japanese warring culture, overlooking the heroic quests of the onna-bugeisha and elevating, instead, exaggerated representations of swaggering male Samurai and subservient Japanese women, clad in kimono and tightly-bound obi. Indeed, historian Stephen Turnbull regards “the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history.”
The history of the onna-bugeisha, literally meaning “woman warrior,” can be traced back to as early as 200 AD, when Empress Jingū, following the death of her husband Emperor Chūai, took to the throne and led an invasion of Silla (modern day Korea). While academics have speculated about the validity of Jingū as a historical figure, her legend is irresistible: A fearsome samurai warrior who defied the social norms of her time, Jingū is said to have been pregnant with the future emperor when she bound her body, donned men’s clothes, and rode into battle. The expedition was successful, and upon her return, it is said that the early empress subdued revolts and ruled for the next 70 years until the age of 100.
In the 5th and 6th centuries—referred to by some sources as the “Epoch of the Queens”—Japan was led by a succession of powerful empresses, and by the 12th century, Turnbull notes that the Samurai class—with their unswerving loyalty, martial spirit, and devotion to an honorable death—were back in favor, “employed as guards and private armies by the imperial court.” Between 1180-1185, conflicts between the rival samurai dynasties of Minamoto and Taira gave rise to one of the most famous women warriors in Japanese history: Tomoe Gozen. The Heike Monogatari, a medieval chronicle of the Genpei War, gives a particularly vivid character description: “Tomoe had long black hair and a fair complexion, and her face was very lovely,” recounts the text, “moreover she was a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors.” Gozen’s expert talents included archery, horseback riding, and the art of the katana, a long, traditional samurai sword.
Particularly interesting about Gozen: She was one of the few women warriors who engaged in offensive battle, known as onna-musha, rather than the defensive fighting more common among traditional onna-bugeisha. In 1184, she led 300 samurai into a fierce battle against 2,000 opposing Tiara clan warriors, and during the Battle of Awazu later that same year, she slayed several adversaries before decapitating the Musashi clan’s leader and presenting his head to her master, General Kiso Yoshinaka. Gozen’s reputation was so high, it’s said Yoshinaka considered her the first true general of Japan.
Despite minimal written historical record, recent archeological evidence suggests that Gozen may not have been a rarity. The excavation of three head-mounds has uncovered a significant female involvement in battle, throwing the exclusion of onna-bugeisha from the history books into greater relief. For instance, DNA tests on 105 bodies excavated from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 revealed that 35 of them were women. According to Turnbull, the details on the excavation confirm that women warriors were almost certainly present on the battlefield.
The advent of the Edo Period at the beginning of the 17th century brought a huge shift to the status of women in Japanese society. During these years, the dominant Neo-Confucian philosophy and burgeoning marriage market heralded a radical change for the onna-bugeisha, whose status as fearsome warriors stood in stark opposition to the new order of peace, political stability, and rigid social convention. Earlier warrior culture evolved into a new code of conduct, known as bushido, meaning “the way of the warrior.” Samurai men, once preoccupied with fierce conflicts, became bureaucrats of the Empire, while women, specifically daughters of noblemen and generals, were expected to live a life of passive obedience as dutiful wives and mothers. Forbidden from travelling and partaking in battle, the onna-bugeisha found themselves facing self-sacrifice of an altogether different kind.
Historian Ellis Amdur notes that once a bushi woman of that time married, it was customary for her to take her naginata with her to her husband’s home, but use it only for moral training. It was an “emblem of her role in society” and a means of instilling “the idealized virtues necessary to be a samurai wife”—strength, subservience, and above all, endurance. “Practice with the naginata,” Amdur continues, “was a means of merging with a spirit of self-sacrifice, of connecting with the hallowed ideals of the warrior class.” Martial arts training, therefore, was a means for a woman to practice servitude towards the men of the household, and cultivate an ordered, domesticated life free of the energies of war.
Despite the new era of bureaucracy, the mid-17th century marked something of a renaissance for the onna-bugeisha. The rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate brought a renewed focus on training female Samurai in skilled combat, while schools opened around the Empire focusing on the art of the naginata as a method of moral training. During this period, women also learned to protect their villages with a new degree of independence, seeing off threats themselves as they had done centuries earlier. By the time of the last battles between the ruling Tokugawa clan and imperial forces in the late 19th century, a special female corps known as the Jōshitai had been created, ruled over by none other than the onna-bugeisha Nakano Takeko. After a long and bitter siege, they stormed the imperial forces with the Aizu samurai, providing much-needed reinforcement to Wakamatsu Castle.
The Battle of Aizu is widely considered to be the last stand of the onna-bugeisha, though their legacy lives on today in small but significant ways. Every year, during the annual Aizu Autumn Festival, Japanese girls take part in a procession to honor the memory of Nakano Takeko and her woman army, while the heroic exploits of Empress Jingū, the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote (in 1881), remains a great source of national pride. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the onna-bugeisha’s exceptional strength and bravery comes from the Heike Monogatari historical epic, whose depiction of revered warrior Tomoe Gozen reads: “She was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.”