5 Ways Japan's Women Warriors Carved Their Place In History

There were just so many badass onna-musha throughout history, and every one of them deserves her own high-budget movie.
5 Ways Japan's Women Warriors Carved Their Place In History

For most of history, whenever a woman showed up to a battle, ready to kill random dudes while imagining they're the husband who never gave them an orgasm, most men got all flustered and went, "Hold on, I'm confused, don't you have a vagina?" And because life isn't an action-comedy, most women in that situation didn't go, "Yeah, which means I've bled more times than you and am still around, so stand aside while mama turns a few necks into sprinklers." Instead, they returned to jobs that were deemed more suitable for women, like cleaning, cooking, and dying in childbirth.

It worked slightly differently in Japan …

In Ancient Japan, There is Only War

Don't get us wrong, Japan very much believed that women should mostly be unseen, quiet, and obedient to their masters. Basically, ninjas you'd want to have sex with. Which we guess are just regular ninjas, only sexist. The thing is, though, this philosophy only really caught on around the mid-17th century. Before that, women warriors weren't really the norm on the battlefield and definitely weren't on equal footing with the men. But in times of war when the men needed every single person who could hold a weapon to defend their lands, they sure as hell didn't care what was between your legs as long as you could point a sharp piece of metal between the legs of the people charging your position. Here's the important context: until about 1603, Japan was at war pretty much all the time.

Library of Congress

"Okay, every hang back a sec while they finish painting the last battle, THEN TO BATTLE!"

So, because war so common back then, the people of Japan realized that it's just a matter of time before their women had to exchange irons for iron, so, they reckoned, it would save everyone a lot of trouble if they started teaching them how to use weapons. This eventually led to the rise of onna-musha or onna-bugeishaliterally "woman warriors." Some may call them "woman samurai," but that's not entirely accurate as "samurai" is a very specific title that didn't really apply to women. Also, onna-musha were around way before there technically was such a thing as the samurai. If you count legendary figures, Japanese female fatality fencers date back to like the 2nd century AD.

These women were mostly the wives and daughters of men from the warrior class, but sometimes also of high-born feudal lords. They were taught things like politics (to know which clans to stab when the time came) and martial arts and, of course, given weapons training. This turned out to be bad news for piles of poor bastards on the wrong side of history, especially if they went against Tomoe Gozen.

"I'm a Simple Girl. I See a Strong Dude, I Chop His Head Off."

Tomoe Gozen was a legendary onna-musha who fought in the Genpei War (1180 – 1185), a conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Gozen served Minamoto no Yoshinaka in his fight against the Taira and later his cousin Yoritomo, who would become Japan's first shogun. But what she lacked in the ability to pick the winning side, she more than made up for in bloodlust. Gozen was said to be an extraordinary warrior worth a thousand soldiers. A genius on a horse or with a bow or sword, she was apparently a mobile corpse factory. She was also said to be very beautiful, though we imagine it was hard to tell underneath all that enemy blood and guts.

Toyohara Chikanobu/Wikimedia Commons

Seen here in her natural habitat: towering over a path of dismembered bodies.

In 1184, she led 300 warriors against a Taira force of 2,000 samurai and was one of only five people to survive the encounter. The other four lived, but they didn't live well -- especially if they saw Gozen get to work up close. Gozen's last act of badassery was at the battle of Awazu, where Yoshinaka was mortally wounded, and Gozen refused to leave his side ... until she could find a big dude to kill to prove her devotion to her dying master. Enter Honda no Morishige, a formidable warrior with an entourage of 30 men. Gozen took one look at him and went, "Yup, you'll do!" According to accounts, she rushed him, pinned his head to his saddle, and chopped it off.

Now, we hate to be buzzkills, but we also have to mention that many people believe Tomoe Gozen wasn't a real historical figure. And if we work together, we can find those people and give them all wedgies. It's what Tomoe would have wanted. But in the spirit of accuracy, let's hit some indisputable facts about onna-musha …

Fight Like a Girl with Knife on a Stick

For a lot of their history, onna-musha were associated with a weapon called the naginata. Originally used by foot soldiers to attack enemies on horseback, it eventually became prized by female warriors because it required less raw physical strength and more precision in order to be deadly. There are also theories that with a slightly lower center of gravity, a smaller naginata wielder, like a woman, could execute more powerful strikes/people using the weapon. We've also asked a historian if it's possible that the smaller women spun the naginata above their heads until they achieved flight so they could attack their enemies from above like angry human helicopters. But instead of answering, they just yelled at us until we left their bathroom.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi/Wikimedia Commons

So, we're only like 20% sure about the helicopter thing, but 8,000% sure this is badass.

Another weapon that you could often find on Japanese warrior women was the kaiken, a kind of short dagger that they used to carry on themselves all the time. It was great for close quarter combat, so the onna-musha received extensive training in knife fighting techniques, which is just so goddamn cool. Less cool is that the knife was also meant to be used by the women to cut their own necks and commit suicide if they saw no other way out. Or, and this is definitely the least cool thing about the kaiken, they were sometimes also told to kill themselves with the knife if they were unhappy in their marriages. Divorce back then wasn't really an option. With one interesting exception ...

Japan's Ass-Kicking Nuns and the Divorce Temple

The first onna-musha to wield some actual power in Japan was Hojo Masako (1157 – 1225), wife of the previously-mentioned Minamoto no Yoritomo. After his death, she became a Buddhist nun and basically ran Japan, which is why she is sometimes called the "nun shogun." She didn't do a lot of actual fighting in those days, but she thoroughly reformed the shogunate to secure her family's position as Japan's true rulers. Eventually, she consolidated so much power for the Hojo clan that it actually helped a bunch of women get divorces.

Adachi Ginko/Wikimedia Commons

Not the divorce with extreme prejudice you may be picturing, though she was clearly up to the task.

When the eighth Hojo regent, Tokimune, died, his wife Kakusan-ni became a nun and opened the Tokeiji temple in Kamakura in 1285. Because Masako laid the groundwork for Hojo women to basically do whatever, thanks to their political control of the country, Kakusan-ni was able to turn the temple into a shelter for battered women, forbidding any men from entering so they couldn't drag their wives back home. Eventually, Tokeiji became a place where married women could seek shelter and actually get a decree of divorce from the nuns if they deemed it was the best thing for them. The woman would then usually spend 2 years at the temple as payment for this service. To repeat: an onna-musha gamed the Japanese political system so hard, her descendants in the 13th century could just tell a guy he wasn't married anymore, and if he didn't like it, he was given a hammer and directions to the nearest beach so he could go pound sand because there was jack he could do about it.

We mention this to illustrate that onna-musha were both fierce warriors and skilled political operators. Yes, on the one hand, you had people like Tomoe Gozen, but on the other, you had Hojo Masako or Kakusan-ni. There was also Ii Naotora who, after the death of all the males in her family, successfully took control of her clan and became a female feudal lord (lordess? Landlady? Lorde?) in 1563, something which was very rare but allowed in extraordinary circumstances. And it just so happens that this event bears a striking resemblance to an episode of Star Trek involving a Klingon female warrior. And now that we've established the onna-musha's intellectual bona fides, time to get back to all the cool-ass killing that they did.

The Lethal Female Warriors Disney Cowardly Refuses to Make Films About

There were just so many badass onna-musha throughout history, and every one of them deserves her own high-budget movie. For example, Ikeda Sen was a 16-17th century warrior who led a unit of woman musketeers armed with arquebuses during the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute (1584). Akai Teruko (1514 – 1594) was a military leader commanding 3,000 soldiers when she was goddamn 70. One Yoshioka Myorin-ni commanded the defense of Tsurusaki Castle in 1586 against overwhelming odds in full armor and with her naginata in hand, leading units of musketeers against the attackers and taking a total of 63 enemy heads.

As we said, the 17th century marked the beginning of the end for onna-musha, not just because of changing the social perception of what a woman should be but also because that's when Japan entered an era of peace. And without war, you can't really have warriors, female or otherwise. But the onna-musha survived, waiting for a new conflict to arise. They admittedly waited a bit long. 1868 to be exact. Just to quickly set the stage, remember The Last Samurai and how it was a battle between the supporters of the shogun and the Emperor? Yeah, onna-musha totally fought in that, most notably one Nakano Takeko who led a group of 20-30 women called the Joshitai (Women's Corps) during the Battle of Aizu. She reportedly killed 5-6 men with her naginata before taking a bullet through the heart. We don't know who was to blame. With her last breath, Takeko asked her sister to cut off her head so that it couldn't be taken as a war trophy. Again, real-life Klingons.

Hokaiji Temple/Wikimedia Commons

Takeko and her sister who were 21 and 16 at the time, and were tougher than we'll ever be if we live to be 1,000.

With the Emperor's supporters eventually winning the conflict, Japan started modernizing -- abolishing the warrior class and with it the onna-musha. Japanese women continued to learn martial arts and weaponry (the art of the naginata is still practiced today by both men and women) but had no chances to test their skills in actual battle. It was only in 1992 that Japan finally started allowing women into roles related to combat in the Self-Defense Forces. And yet, they still refuse to bring back the naginata halberd into official military service. The word "cowardice" has been thrown a lot these days, but ...

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Top Images: Wiki Commons


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