Images of Samurai Women

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A Long History - Japanese Women Warriors

EmpressJinguInKoreaWiki.jpg
Empress Jingu leads the invasion of Korea. via Wikipedia

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 (c. 169-269 CE), pictured here leading an invasion of Korea.

According to the stories, Jingu was married to the fourteenth emperor of Japan, Chuai, who reigned between 192 and 200. After his death, she ruled as a regent for her young son. To pass the time, she invaded and conquered Korea (without shedding a drop of blood, according to the legend).

"Female Samurai"

Linguistic purists point out that the term "samurai" is a masculine word; thus, there are no "female samurai."

Nonetheless, for thousands of years, certain upper class Japanese women have learned martial skills and participated in fighting.

Between the 12th and 19th centuries, many women of the samurai class learned how to handle the sword and the naginata (a blade on a long staff) 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 war to come to them. Here are pictures of some of the most famous among them.

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Genpei War-Era Faux Samurai Woman

Print by Kiyonaga Torii, c. 1785 to 1789.
Print of Minamoto Yoshitsune, wearing feminine clothing but sporting the two swords of a samurai, standing beside legendary fighting monk Saito Benkei. 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 from 1785-1789.

The "lady" shown here wears a long veil and civilian clothing over lacquered armor. According to Dr. Roberta Strippoli of Binghamton University, 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 (c. 1155-1189). He is famed for his half-human, half-demon parentage and his 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.

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The Most Famous Female Samurai: Tomoe Gozen

Print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, c. 1880.
Tomoe Gozen, c. 1157–1247, a Genpei War-era samurai, leaning on her naginata (pole weapon). Library of Congress Prints Collection

During the Genpei War (1180-1185), a beautiful young woman named Tomoe Gozen fought alongside her daimyo (and possibly her husband), Minamoto no Yoshinaka, against the Taira and then against 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 Genpei War

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 then became a nun after his death.

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Tomoe Gozen on Horseback

Print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, c. 1848-1854
An actor portrays Japan's most famous female samurai, Tomoe Gozen. 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 a 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."

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Tomoe Gozen Defeats Another Warrior

Print by Shuntei Katsukawa, c. 1804-1818
Female samurai Tomoe Gozen disarms a male warrior. 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. She has the traditional Heian-era woman's eyebrows - the natural brows are shaved off, and then bushier ones are painted high on the forehead, near the hair-line.

Tomoe Gozen here is relieving 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.

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Tomoe Gozen Playing Koto and Riding to War

Print by Adashi Ginko, 1888.
Tomoe Gozen, c. 1157–1247, playing koto (top) and riding out to war (bottom). Library of Congress Prints Collection

This very intriguing print from 1888 shows Tomoe Gozen in the upper panel in a very traditional female role; she is 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, she has traded her silk robe for armor, and she 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.

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Hangaku Gozen

Print by Yoshitoshi Taiso, 1885.
Hangaku Gozen, another Genpei War-era female samurai, who was allied with the Taira Clan, c. 1200. Library of Congress Prints Collection.

Another famous female fighter of the Genpei War was Hangaku Gozen, also known as Itagaki. She was allied with the Taira clan, which 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; she was 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 he was given permission to marry her instead.

The female samurai and her husband, Asari Yohito, had at least one daughter.

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Yamakawa Futaba

Photo of female warrior Yamakawa Futaba later in life.
Yamakawa Futaba (1844-1909), who fought to defend Tsuruga Castle in the Boshin War (1868-69). via Wikipedia, public domain due to age.

The Genpei War of the late 12th century seemed to inspire many female warriors to join in the fight. More recently, the Boshin War (1868-69) also witnessed the fighting spirit of Japan's samurai-class women.

The Boshin War:

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 (October and November 1868).

After a month-long siege, the Aizu region surrendered. Its samurai were sent to prisoner of war camps, and the domain was divided up and redistributed to imperial loyalists.

Yamakawa Futaba, 1844-1909

As the daughter and the wife of shogunate officials in Aizu, Yamakawa Futaba was trained to fight. She participated in the defense of

Tsuruga Castle

against the Emperor's forces. When the castle's defenses were breached, many of the defenders committed

seppuku

.

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

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Yamamoto Yaeko, Gunner at Aizu

The Boshin War was a Japanese civil war between imperial forces and the Tokugawa shogunate.
Yamamoto Yaeko (1845-1942), who fought as a gunner during the defense of Aizu in the Boshin War (1868-9). via Wikipedia, public domain due to age

Another of the Aizu region's female samurai defenders was Yamamoto Yaeko (1845-1932). Her father was a gunnery instructor for the daimyo of the Aizu domain, and young Yaeko was a highly skilled shooter.

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, and helped to found Doshisha University, a Christian school in Kyoto.

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Nakano Takeko

Nakano Takeko was killed in battle at the age of 21.
Nakano Takeko (1847-1868), leader of a female warrior corps during the Boshin War (1868-69). via Wikipedia, public domain due to age

A third Aizu defender was Nakano Takeko (1847-1868), 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 at Hokaiji Temple.

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.