Tomoe Gozen

A Brief History of the Onna Musha, the Female Samurai

KOJO MIYAGINO: The Filial Using a Naginata (mid 1800s).
Woodblock print, oban tate-e. 36.90cm x 25.40cm. British Museum.

What comes to mind when you hear the word samurai? Men wielding katanas? Ironclad Japanese warriors about to strike a blow? Or perhaps a robed samurai on the verge of self-sacrifice.

What about a kimono-wrapped lady on the verge of kicking ass?

While most women in feudal Japan were expected to adhere to traditional roles, samurai (called “bushi” before the Kamakura Period) as a warrior class included both men and women. However, “samurai” was a term reserved for men. Women “samurai” were deemed either onna-musha (a female warrior on the offensive) or onna bugeisha, a warrior woman on the defensive.

Onna musha were rarer than their onna bugeisha counterparts, who were nevertheless formidable women. Onna bugeisha were trained in martial arts to defend their homes against the frequent ransacking that took place during the Warring States Period in feudal Japan. Their weapon of choice was the naginata, a curved sword mounted on a pole, first used by warrior monks in 750 A.D.

UTAGAWA KUNIYOSHI: Ishijo, Wife Of Oboshi Yoshio, Making A Stroke With A Naginata (1848). Woodblock print. 37.60cm x 25.60cm. British Museum.

Onna musha, on the other hand, took part in offensive combat, fighting alongside the samurai. Nakano Takeko earned her renown as a warrior for her fierceness during the Boshin War. Takeko gathered her own troops to fight alongside the Tokugawa shogunate, pitted against Imperial Meiji forces. Her band of onna musha became known as the Jōshitai, with both Takeko’s mother and her sister among the female warrior group.

Portrait of Nakano Takeko

Another onna musha of formidable reputation was Tomoe Gozen. Besides being a consummate archer, Gozen possessed great skill at horseback riding and wielding the katana, making her a fearsome foe in battle.

Tomoe Gozen as depicted by TSUKIOKA YOSHITOSHI in
Tomoe onna (1875-1876)

While some scholars believe that Gozen was a fictional warrior, accounts of her exceptional feats in combat solidify her as an onna musha of great bravery and skill. Best known for her role in the Genpei War (1180-1185), Gozen’s battlefield achievements, such as decapitating the Musashi clan leader Saburou Ieyoshi, led to the establishment of the new Kamakura shogunate. In turn, the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) saw the rise of Zen Buddhism and new codes of honor such as seppuku, transforming the bushi warrior class into the samurai as we know them today.

ISHIKAWA TOYONOBU: Tomoe Gozen Killing Uchida Saburo Ieyoshi at the Battle of Awazu no Hara (c. 1750). Woodblock print. Ink and color on paper.

Thanks to the fierceness, bravery and skill of the warrior onna, the naginata itself became known as a symbol of female virtue among the samurai class.


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