Japan’s Warrior Women

onna-bushiThe one characteristic that sets women apart from men has shaped how women are treated in most societies. No, I am not referring to boobs. There is something about childbirth that relegates women to the role of property in most agricultural societies. Perhaps it is because most agricultural societies have the idea of land ownership built into their systems. Like farmland produces food, women produce heirs. Both are important for a family’s survival. Japan is one culture that has a long history of viewing women as subordinate. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, for example, women did not legally exist. They could not own property and had to be subordinate to men in every way (Friedman, 1992).

Despite this lack of legal status, women played important background roles in Japanese warrior society. Sadly, women are rarely mentioned in early histories. These histories were originally oral traditions that enshrined certain clans and warriors (almost all male) in legend.  This lack of history doesn’t mean Japanese women kept to their kimono and were victims of rape and other atrocities of war. Quite the contrary, Japanese women of samurai class were expected to train in the use of weapons and could even be jito, stewards that supervised land when their men were absent (Amdur, 1996).

Let’s look at what roles samurai women actually held. Now, little is known of how lower classes (farmer, merchant, and artisan) lived compared to the samurai and other elite classes. The lower classes were not the concerns of chroniclers, but we can safely say that the women of these classes were concerned about their families just as much as samurai women. If anything, it might have been better to live in the lower classes. These women dealt with starvation and other deprivations, but they were also not subject to the same rigors of discipline and social expectations as samurai women.

Like what you ask? What is worse then starving?

Beheading your children and then slitting your own throat.

And yes, this actually happened during the Meiji Restoration.

Expectations of Samurai Women

samurai-class-womanEarly History
The battle tales of Japan that chronicle the wars of the Heian, Kamakura, and Muromachi periods portrayed women in a few  roles (Amdur, 1996):

  • Tragic heroine: the woman who kills herself when her husband dies.
  • Loyal Wife: the woman who is taken captive but retains her husband’s honor under questioning, torment, and more.
  • Stalwart Mother: the woman who trains her son to take vengeance for his father.
  • Merciful woman: the woman who encourages a samurai to indulge “unmanly” empathy, such as sparing an enemy’s family.
  • Seductress: the woman who distracts a man from his duty.
  • Spoils of war: women to be slaughtered or given to men as a reward for heroism.

As you can tell, half (or perhaps all?) of the roles are negative. The merciful woman inevitably causes her husband to die by the hand of those he spares. The first three – tragic heroine, loyal wife, and stalwart mother – exemplify samurai ideals. Be loyal to death. Protect the family’s honor. The other three – merciful woman, seductress, and spoils of war – are roles a good samurai woman are to avoid.

Now, I am being a little misleading. The battle tales predate the samurai class, but they were used by the class as a source for their ideas, among other sources. During the time of these battles, particularly the Heian and Kamakura periods, women in the forming samurai class were called bushi (ぶし). Bushi were women pioneers that helped settle new lands. And yes, that sometimes involved fighting. Bushi trained in the use of naginata, a halberd-like weapon useful for both fighting a man and a horseman. The naginata was considered the best weapon for women – although men used the weapon as well – because of women’s natural disadvantage in close quarters fighting. Naginata wielding women became an iconic image during the Warring States Period (Amdur, 1996).

As pioneers, bushi were expected to defend their families, build homes, farm, and just about anything else the American pioneer women did during the expansion of the United States. This background of being tough and loyal to the family became the foundation of what samurai women were expected to be.

Warring States Period
The samurai class was firmly established during this period of history. Because of the constant warfare between the city states, samurai women had many brutal challenges placed upon them. Women were often the final defense of the town or castle. They would also lead other women to battle. In one account, the wife of a samurai lord, after witnessing women and children killing themselves, armed herself, lead 83 surviving soldiers, and challenged the enemy general. The general, claiming women are unfit to be warriors, retreated from her. He managed to  escape when his soldiers attacked the woman’s squad. She cut her way through the mess and back to the castle (Amdur, 1996). These tales made naginata wielding women a new part of the samurai ethos.

However, the main weapon women used showed just what was expected of her. The kaiken (Not the kaioken of Dragonball Z, by the way) or dagger was carried by bushi women at all times. They were not expected to actually fight with the dagger. After all, she would often face several men armed with spears and katana. If she was captured, she was certain to face rape and be used to dishonor her family and husband. Instead, the kaiken was used for jigai. Jigai was the female version of seppuku, only instead of spilling her guts all over the ground, she cut her jugular vein. This avoided an “ugly” death that would be an affront to the dignity of a samurai woman (Amdur, 1996).

Edo Period
During this period, bushi were expected to make the family and her husband her entire life. Then her male sons and her mother-in-law. I already wrote about these expectations if you want to learn more.

Above all, samurai women were expected to be strong, subservient, and endure.

Tomoe, the Legendary Woman  Samurai

Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa
Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa

One bushi in particular is enshrined in Japan’s battle chronicles.  Tomoe Gozen appears with other women in Heike monogatari, a chronicle of the Genpai War. Tomoe was a legend for her skill as a mounted warrior, archer, and her beauty.  There are various conflicting accounts of her lineage and final fate, but the attention she garnered shows just how impressive she was in a patriarchal society. A noh play even suggests Tomoe may have retired and became a noh entertainer (Brown, 1998).

In any case, Tomoe appears during the battle of Yokotogawara. There, she kills seven mounted samurai.  Two years later, she is appointed as Kiso no Yoshinaka’s commanders and leads 1,000 horseman to a crucial victory.  In 1184, she survives a debacle that the chronicle says reduced her force from 300 warriors to just five. Soon after, Tomoe appears in one final battle. In one account, Tomoe is denied a warrior’s death. Her lord, in fact, orders her away from the battlefield despite her desire to die beside him in the final fight.  Like a samurai woman should, she obeys his orders to retreat, reports the result of the battle to his wife and child, and prays for her fallen lord.  After this final battle, Tomoe’s life becomes speculation. She is said to have married Wada Yoshimori that produced a legendary warrior Asahino Saburo Yoshihide. The legend also states he inherited his immense strength from his mother (Brown, 1998).

Whether or not the Asahino’s lineage is historical doesn’t matter. What matters is how important Tomoe was. She became one of the best examples of what a samurai woman was supposed to be. She was denied a warrior’s death, but the chronicle makes it plain that she was not dishonored by following her lord’s final order.  While she may be an exception, the fact she became a legend is a male-oriented society is important to consider. She became the leading commander of Yoshinaka’s army and trusted to report a final message to his wife.  The chronicle illustrates the expectation of samurai women to endure – even endure what Tomoe would have considered the dishonor of retreating from a warrior’s death.

The exploits of samurai women like Tomoe became popular subjects for kabuki theater. While the roles are played by men – called onnagata – female warriors became a popular theme. One play, called Kagamiyama or Mirror Mountain premiered in 1782 and appealed directly to samurai class women.  The play’s portrayal of life in a lord’s home and the behavior of the women must have been close to reality because of the play’s popularity. It was based on true incidents of a samurai class maidservant taking revenge for the humiliation of her mistress in 1724. So about 550 years after Tomoe, samurai class women were still involved in fighting and vengeance (Klens-Bigman, 2010).

The Women’s Army – the Joshigun

female-samurai-c.1900During the Meiji Restoration, samurai women saw the end of their class. The Meiji Restoration was a movement to restore the Japanese emperor to power and abolish the Tokugawa shogunate. The last battles of the shogunate often pitted sword-carrying samurai against American and British made Imperial rifles.

One clan, the Aizu, had the deepest loyalty to Tokugawa rule. This loyalty led to one of the final actions of female samurai.

In 1868, Imperial forces besieged the last Aizu stronghold of Aizu-Wakamatsu: Crane Castle. The pressure of the superior firepower from Imperial forces led to few options. Retreat into the castle, commit suicide, flee to the countryside, or charge into final combat.  Some of the warrior women who lost their husbands and sons in the fighting prior opted for suicide. Some even killed themselves to save the castle’s rations for those better fit to fight.  According to accounts, 230 people killed themselves (Wright, 2001).

The members of the Joshigun had other plans. They decided to fight and die. We even know some of their names. The wife of a magistrate, Kawahara Asako, executed her family members before joining the final battle still covered in her family’s blood. She cut off her mother-in-law’s and daughter’s head to avoid their capture (Wright, 2001).

What did Kawahara Asako feel as she decapitated her own daughter? Relief that her daughter won’t have to suffer rape and torture? A sense of duty as a samurai? Certainly sorrow.

Together, 20 to 30 women gathered with the remaining Aizu samurai.  The Aizu commander denied them permission to join to fight before relenting from Nakano Takeko’s (the leader of the women’s delegation group) insistence and threats to kill herself on the spot to shame the commander. The next morning, the remaining Tokugawa supporters attacked in an effort to break through the imperial forces to get to Crane Castle (Wright, 2001).

The members of the Joshigun determined not to be taken alive. When imperial troops learned they were females, many died tried to take these women as captives. However, the attack did have some success. Some of the troops managed to cut through the imperial forces and reinforce Crane Castle. Most of the castle’s defenders were women. Many of these women were tasked with covering cannon balls with wet mats and rice sacks to reduce the damage of the resulting explosion (Wright, 2001).

The women did what they could to hold out with diminishing supplies. There is a story of a 60-year-old mother sneaking out of the castle to find food for the wounded. She was attacked by a soldier who she promptly stabbed to death with her kaiken. Despite efforts like this and attacks to break the siege by diminished outside forces, Crane Castle surrendered after a month. At least 4 of the Aizu warrior women survived.  Yamakawa Sakuko, saw her mother killed during the fighting. She was 9 years old at the time.  Three years later, she found herself selected by her former enemies to go to the United States and become the first Japanese woman to be certified in nursing (Wright, 2001). The daughter of one of the last samurai women became a healer.

Warrior Women Today

The history of samurai women left a quiet mark on Japanese women. Quiet, because it is no where near as well known as the exploits of their male counterparts. However, women like Tomoe exemplified what it meant to be a female samurai – strong, enduring, yet dedicated to family. While we view many of the ideals as perhaps toxic and misogynistic today, the ideas of endurance and inner strength are important for both genders in modern society. We live in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. Samurai ideals came from a similar age of change and uncertainty. These ideals left an impression on Japanese culture that can still be seen in the corporate world. We have similar ideals of endurance and hard work here in the United States because of how own pioneering period. Women, in particular, embodied these ideals because of the burdens of birthing and raising children.

As a guy, I will say it is unfair how much of a burden biology can be for women. Most gender roles rotate around the ability of women to give birth. Even today, the ability to have children shapes how society treats women. Samurai culture is interesting in how men and women shared many of the same expectations.  The ultimate expectation of an honorable death was perhaps equally painful. For men, it was the expectation of stoically spilling out your own guts. For women, it was the expectation of killing your children and then yourself to avoid capture.

Actually, never mind.  It looks like women still have the heaviest burden in even this.
Final thoughts on samurai and suicide.

Okay, I know this is a really long article. So, I will keep this section short.  Samurai culture often seems to revolve around suicide. We have to keep in mind that the stories we have are just a small window. The vast majority of samurai were unlikely to kill themselves. However, the expectation was still there if it had to be done.  In addition to Japanese culture, I also study early Christian history. Understand, I come from a different culture (obviously). So that said, my opinion is a result of my upbringing.  That said, I view martyrdom and a samurai’s suicide as equally fruitless. A dead person cannot help anyone. The idea of honor is silly. All you have to do is travel a fair distance and no one will even know who are you (or in a samurai’s case, travel to Korea or northern Japan) and much less care. It is better to remain alive to teach others than die. Perhaps your name will live on, but the influence a living person has upon history is even greater through his/her influence on people. Even if the name of that person is forgotten. Hundreds of nameless samurai women who lived and died attest to the power of this type of legacy,


Amdur, E. (1996). The Role of Armsbearing Women in Japanese History. Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 5 (2).  11-35.

Klens-Bigman, D. (2010). Fighting Women of Kabuki Theater and the Legacy of Women’s Japanese Martial Arts.  Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 19 (3) 64-77.

Brown, S. (1998). From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 58 (1). 183-199.

Wright, D. (2001). Female combatants and Japan’s Meiji Restoration: the case of Aizu. Ware in History 8 (4) 396-417.