A Long History of Japanese Women Warriors

Illustration of Empress Jingu leading the invasion of Korea holding sword

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Long before the term "samurai" came into usage, Japanese fighters were skilled with the sword and spear. These warriors included some women, such as the legendary Empress Jingu, who lived between approximately 169 and 269 A.D.

Linguistic purists point out that the term "samurai" is a masculine word; thus, there is no "female samurai." Nonetheless, for thousands of years, certain upper-class Japanese women have learned martial skills and participated in battles right alongside the male samurai.

Between the 12th and 19th centuries, many women of the samurai class learned how to handle the sword and the naginata primarily to defend themselves and their homes. In the event that their castle was overrun by enemy warriors, the women were expected to fight to the end and die with honor, weapons in hand.

Some young women were such skilled fighters that they rode out to war beside the men, rather than sitting at home and waiting for a war to come to them. Here are pictures of some of the most famous among them.

Faux Samurai Women During the Genpei War Era

Print by Kiyonaga Torii, c. 1785 to 1789 of Minamoto Yoshitsune
Library of Congress Prints Collection

Some depictions of what appear to be samurai women are actually illustrations of beautiful men, such as this Kiyonaga Torii drawing thought to have been created between 1785 to 1789.

The "lady" shown here wears a long veil and civilian clothing over lacquered armor. According to Dr. Roberta Strippoli of Binghamton University, though, this actually is not a female but the famously pretty male samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune.

The man next to him kneeling to adjust his shoe is the legendary warrior-monk Saito Musashibo Benkei, who lived from 1155 to 1189 and is famed for his half-human, half-demon parentage and incredibly ugly features, as well as his prowess as a warrior.

Yoshitsune defeated Benkei in hand-to-hand combat, after which they became fast friends and allies. The two died together at the Siege of Koromogawa in 1189.

Tomoe Gozen: The Most Famous Female Samurai

Print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, c. 1880 of Tomoe Gozen
Library of Congress Prints Collection

During the Genpei War from 1180 to 1185, a beautiful young woman named Tomoe Gozen fought alongside her daimyo and possible husband Minamoto no Yoshinaka against the Taira and later the forces of his cousin, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Tomoe Gozen ("gozen" is a title meaning "lady") was famous as a swordswoman, a skilled rider, and a superb archer. She was Minamoto's first captain and took at least one enemy head during the Battle of Awazu in 1184.

The late-Heian era Genpei War was a civil conflict between two samurai clans, the Minamoto and the Taira. Both families sought to control the shogunate. In the end, the Minamoto clan prevailed and established the Kamakura shogunate in 1192.

The Minamoto did not just fight the Taira, though. As mentioned above, different Minamoto lords also fought one another. Unfortunately for Tomoe Gozen, Minamoto no Yoshinaka died at the Battle of Awazu. His cousin, Minamoto Yoritomo, became shogun.

Reports vary as to Tomoe Gozen's fate. Some say that she stayed in the fight and died. Others say that she rode away carrying an enemy's head, and disappeared. Still, others claim that she married Wada Yoshimori and became a nun after his death.

Tomoe Gozen on Horseback

Print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, c. 1848-1854 of Tomoe Gozen on Horseback
Library of Congress Prints Collection

The story of Tomoe Gozen has inspired artists and writers for centuries.

This print shows an actor in a mid-19th-century kabuki play portraying the famed female samurai. Her name and image have also graced an NHK (Japanese television) drama called "Yoshitsune," as well as comic books, novels, anime, and video games.

Fortunately for us, she also inspired a number of Japan's great woodcut print artists. Because no contemporary images of her exist, artists have free rein to interpret her features. The sole surviving description of her, from the "Tale of the Heike," states that she was beautiful, "with white skin, long hair, and charming features." Pretty vague, huh?

Tomoe Gozen Defeats Another Warrior

Print by Shuntei Katsukawa, c. 1804-1818 of Female samurai Tomoe Gozen
Library of Congress Prints Collection

This gorgeous rendition of Tomoe Gozen shows her almost as a goddess, with her long hair and her silk wrap flowing up behind her. Here she is depicted with traditional Heian-era women's eyebrows where the natural brows are shaved off and bushier ones painted high on the forehead, near the hairline.

In this painting, Tomoe Gozen relieves her opponent of his long sword (katana), which has fallen to the ground. She has his left arm in a firm grip and may be about to claim his head as well.

This holds up to history as she was known for beheading Honda no Moroshige during the 1184 Battle of Awazu.

Tomoe Gozen Playing Koto and Riding to War

Print by Adashi Ginko, 1888 of Tomoe Gozen
Library of Congress Prints Collection

This very intriguing print from 1888 shows Tomoe Gozen in the upper panel in a very traditional female role, seated on the floor, her long hair unbound, playing the koto. In the lower panel, however, she has her hair up in a powerful knot and has traded her silk robe for armor and wields a naginata rather than a koto pick.

In both panels, enigmatic male riders appear in the background. It is not really clear whether they are her allies or enemies, but in both cases, she is looking over her shoulder at them.

Perhaps a commentary of women's rights and struggles of the time emphasizing the constant threat of men to women's power and autonomy.

Hangaku Gozen: A Twisted Love Story of the Genpei War

Print by Yoshitoshi Taiso, 1885 of Hangaku Gozen

Library of Congress Prints Collection

Another famous female fighter of the Genpei War was Hangaku Gozen, also known as Itagaki. However, she was allied with the Taira clan who lost the war.

Later, Hangaku Gozen and her nephew, Jo Sukemori, joined in the Kennin Uprising of 1201 which tried to overthrow the new Kamakura Shogunate. She created an army and led this force of 3,000 soldiers in defense of Fort Torisakayama against an attacking army of Kamakura loyalists numbering 10,000 or more.

Hangaku's army surrendered after she was wounded by an arrow, and she was subsequently captured and taken to the shogun as a prisoner. Although the shogun could have ordered her to commit seppuku, one of Minamoto's soldiers fell in love with the captive and was given permission to marry her instead. Hangaku and her husband Asari Yoshito had at least one daughter together and lived a relatively peaceful later life.

Yamakawa Futaba: Daughter of Shogunate and Warrior Woman

Photo of female warrior Yamakawa Futaba later in life.

Niational Diet Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Genpei War of the late 12th century seemed to inspire many female warriors to join in the fight. More recently, the Boshin War of 1868 and 1869 also witnessed the fighting spirit of Japan's samurai class women.

The Boshin War was another civil war, pitting the ruling Tokugawa shogunate against those who wanted to return real political power to the emperor. The young Meiji Emperor had the support of the powerful Choshu and Satsuma clans, who had far fewer troops than the shogun, but more modern weaponry.

After heavy fighting on land and at sea, the shogun abdicated and the shogunate military minister surrendered Edo (Tokyo) in May of 1868. Nevertheless, shogunate forces in the north of the country held out for many months more. One of the most important battles against the Meiji Restoration movement, which featured several female warriors, was the Battle of Aizu in October and November 1868.

As the daughter and the wife of shogunate officials in Aizu, Yamakawa Futaba was trained to fight and consequently participated in the defense of Tsuruga Castle against the Emperor's forces. After a month-long siege, the Aizu region surrendered. Its samurai were sent to war camps as prisoners and their domains were divided up and redistributed to imperial loyalists. When the castle's defenses were breached, many of the defenders committed seppuku.

However, Yamakawa Futaba survived and went on to lead the drive for improved education for women and girls in Japan.

Yamamoto Yaeko: Gunner at Aizu

Portait of Yamamoto Yaeko

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Another of the Aizu region's female ​samurai defenders was Yamamoto Yaeko, who lived from 1845 to 1932. Her father was a gunnery instructor for the daimyo of the Aizu domain, and young Yaeko became a highly skilled shooter under her father's instruction.

After the final defeat of the shogunate forces in 1869, Yamamoto Yaeko moved to Kyoto to look after her brother, Yamamoto Kakuma. He was taken prisoner by the Satsuma clan in the closing days of the Boshin War and presumably received harsh treatment at their hands.

Yaeko soon became a Christian convert and married a preacher. She lived to a ripe old age of 87 and helped to found Doshisha University, a Christian school in Kyoto.

Nakano Takeko: A Sacrifice for the Aizu

Nakano Takeko portrait

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A third Aizu defender was Nakano Takeko, who lived a short life from 1847 to 1868, the daughter of another Aizu official. She was trained in the martial arts and worked as an instructor during her late teens.

During the Battle of Aizu, Nakano Takeko led a corps of female samurai against the Emperor's forces. She fought with a naginata, the traditional weapon of preference for Japanese women warriors.

Takeko was leading a charge against the imperial troops when she took a bullet to her chest. Knowing that she would die, the 21-year-old warrior ordered her sister Yuko to cut off her head and save it from the enemy. Yuko did as she asked, and Nakano Takeko's head was buried under a tree,

The 1868 Meiji Restoration that resulted from the Emperor's triumph in the Boshin War marked the end of an era for the samurai. To the very end, though, samurai women like Nakano Takeko fought won and died as bravely and as well their male counterparts.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Long History of Japanese Women Warriors." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2021, thoughtco.com/images-of-samurai-women-195469. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, October 18). A Long History of Japanese Women Warriors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/images-of-samurai-women-195469 Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Long History of Japanese Women Warriors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/images-of-samurai-women-195469 (accessed June 6, 2023).