Wednesday, February 27, 2013


When we talk about Japanese women the image of the delicate, elaborately dressed geisha often springs to mind. But did you know that a group of female warriors in Japan dates all the way back to at least 100 AD?

Onna-bugeisha were female members of the bushi (samurai) class in Japan. Their origins and the members of their ranks are somewhat misty - some of the most famous examples of their class (Empress Jingu and Tomoe Gozen) may not even have existed.

Make no mistake though, onna-bugeisha were real: This is
Nakano Takeko, who died battling the
Imperial Japanese Army during the Boshin War.
What we do know is that onna-bugeisha were upper-class women trained to defend their homes when the men of the house were away at war... and occasionally to defend their country beside samurai on the battlefield. 

It isn't precisely accurate to say that onna-bugeisha were female samuria. The truth is more complicated than that. The image of genteel docility was very important at that time, so the sight of women in battle wasn't exactly common, and the weapons that women used were different. 

Different - but no less deadly. The main weapon of the onna-bugeisha was a naginata, a long rod with a curved blade at the end, sort of like a spear. This gave women the ability to attack from a distance against men with swords. It was also useful for tackling warriors on horseback. Onna-bugeisha also often trained in the kaiken (dagger), knives, and archery. 

The end of the onna-bugeisha came with the rise of Neo-Confucianism, which dictated that men were inherently good and needed to be obeyed in order to lead their family correctly. While men were required to display filial piety towards their parents, a woman was required to obey not only her husband and father, but also her uncles, parents-in-law, brothers-in-law, and her own sons. It was a little like the White House - if one person kicks the bucket, there's always someone waiting in the wings to order you around.

"Clean the house your own damn self."
In this more restrictive atmosphere, the idea of warrior women was deemed unacceptable. But the onna-bugeisha live on in myth and legend and history, where they continue to inspire people today.


  1. Really great article Selma. I recently learned of Deborah Sampson (who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War and honorably discharged when discovered to be a woman). It's fascinating to see that regardless of the social norms and expectations for women throughout different times and cultures there were still women fighting (no pun intended) for more.


  2. This is awesome! I've heard of this (the myth version) and always hoped it was based on something real.

    1. Me too! I decided to look it up and was amazed by what I found :D