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Everybody knows about Japan and their samurai. But did you know men weren’t the only ones being trained to kill, lead, and fight with deadly weapons back in feudal Japan? Lesser known than their male counterparts, the onna bugeisha played an important role in Japan’s history and Empress Jingu is perhaps the most legendary onna bugeisha of them all. But first, let’s explore what an onna bugeisha really is.

A Force to be Reckoned With

Ask me to make you a sandwich, go ahead – I dare you.

Onna bugeisha (lit. female master of martial arts) were more or less the female equivalent of samurai and a type of female warrior way back when in the olden times of feudal Japan. They belonged to an upper class of warriors known as bushi and even fought alongside male samurai in righteous battle.

These fierce females played a very important role in the time of feudal Japan but for some reason they don’t seem to get much recognition in the history books. Not once do I recall learning about these girls in school, and one of my majors was Japanese. What gives?

I’m not quite sure as to why they seem to get the short end of the stick here, but perhaps the male writers of the history books didn’t like their manliness being challenged by these femme fatales, or perhaps the answer lies somewhere else, who can say. Either way, I think these female warriors are pretty awesome and definitely worth learning about. Let’s move on, shall we?

Early History of the Onna Bugeisha

Even before the emergence of the legendary samurai and the bushi class, Japanese villages needed to be protected from all sorts of attackers. Since the men of the village weren’t always around (hunting, fishing, travelling to Fuji-Q Highland) the women needed to be able to defend themselves and the village should the need arise.

Even so, women warriors were definitely not a common sight on the battlefield. The Japanese idea of what a female should be like and what role she should fill in society were not much different from many cultures at the time. A woman was expected to be obedient, frail, and powerless when compared to her male counterpart in society. This traditional view of women did not rub well with the idea of a female warrior slaying enemies on the battlefield or wielding a deadly weapon.

In these fierce and bloody conflicts, male warriors most often used swords and spears and were highly trained with them. The women, however, were more likely to be trained in the naginata (pole-arm), kaiken (dagger), and tanto (knife) for use in battle. These weapons were easier to use and conceal in the case of the short blades, and the naginata’s length made up for most any strength the onna bugeisha’s female frame may have been lacking.

Weapons of the Onna Bugeisha

Probably the most popular weapon of choice for onna bugeisha was the naginata, a long rod with a curved blade at one end. Due to its length, it became very popular as it was easy to keep attackers at bay and counter attackers riding on horseback.

Because of this, it was easier for the onna bugeisha to fight male warriors at a bit of a distance which allowed them to make up for any lack of strength. Since the male attacker was unable to get into hand to hand or close quarters combat, they were unable to overpower the well trained naginata wielders and most likely brought much shame upon their families for getting owned so hard.

Even though other weapons were commonly used as well (kaiken, tanto, bow and arrow, etc) the naginata ended up becoming synonymous with the onna bugeisha image. Because of this, many onna bugeisha schools were founded in the beginning of the Edo period and focused mainly on the naginata for their training.

The Edo Period and the Fall of Onna Bugeisha

However, and unfortunately for the onna bugeisha, the Edo period also brought about a lowering to the status of onna bugeisha in society. This was due mostly to the influence of Neo-Confucian thought and the established marriage market of the time. As samurai’s focus changed from war and battle to issues of politics and bureaucracy, the onna bugeisha’s role in society drastically changed.

No longer were they fighting fearlessly in battle, these once mighty women were relegated to housemaids, trophy wives, and bargaining chips in deals of succession. Their once burning spirit was placated and pacified into one of quiet, passive obedience.

With the advent of the 17th century, the woman’s role in society had been cemented as a role of childbearing. With this new mindset the image of a female warrior was even more out of place in society than it might have been before. As such, the idea of females fighting in battle any longer was more or less snuffed out and the traditional onna bugeisha was no longer. Women were now viewed as baby machines and not much else.

But while their progress may have been halted by bureaucracy and the changing role of women in Japan, their legacy lives on in legendary tales of their power and bravery. And one of the most legendary and impressive onna bugeisha was one Empress Jingu.

The Legend of Empress Jingu

Empress Jingu (c. AD 169-269) was consort to Emperor Chuai and served as regent of Japan from 209 when Chuai died until 269 when her son Ojin ascended. There is much mystery and legend surrounding Empress Jingu as a historical figure. As there is insufficient records available concerning her and her reign in Japan, many are unsure as to how much of the legends are true. Regardless, the legends themselves are pretty awesome.

Aided by a pair of divine jewels allowing her to control the tides, legend has it she led a successful invasion of Korea in the year 200 without shedding a single drop of blood. However, the belief that Korea was invaded during this time is widely rejected historically, even in Japan. This is because there is debatable historical evidence of Japanese rule in Korea during this time. However, sources state that Japan had at least developed some control over southern Korea by the 4th century.

Legend also states that her son Ojin was born upon her return to Japan in 203. As he was conceived before she went to battle in Korea and born upon her return, he remained in her womb for three years. The legendary explanation for this is that he son was actually Hachiman, the god of war, and he willfully remained in her womb those three years to give her the time she needed to conquer Korea.

A Lasting Legacy

Doesn’t look very Japanese on the bill, does she?

Empress Jingu has been depicted in many vernacular narratives, paintings, and sculptures. Many regarded her as a living goddess, mother of the martial deity Hachiman, and the mighty conqueror of the Korean kingdoms. These powerful aspects represented all of Japan’s newfound colonial aspirations. It just made sense to choose Empress Jingu as the new face on Japan’s paper money.

In 1881, Empress Jingu became the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote. However, since no actual images of her are known to exist (only woodcarvings and the like), the artistic representation of Empress Jingu is entirely conjectural as I’m sure you can tell from the above picture.

Although the final resting place of Empress Jingu remains unknown, her officially designated tomb is located at Misasagi-cho in Nara. This sort of kofun tomb is characterized by a keyhole-shaped island located within a wide, water-filled moat.

But regardless of the validity of the stories surrounding this legendary figure, she no doubt has inspired many generations of Japanese people, both men and women alike. Along with the rest of the onna bugeisha, she fully represents the strength and resolve of Japanese women everywhere.

So tell me, have any of you heard of onna bugeisha before? Am I the only one who’s surprised that they aren’t mentioned more in Japanese history? Let us know in the comments!

[Header Image Source]


Works Consulted:
Jingu Wiki
Onna Bugeisha Wiki
Encyclopædia Britannica

  • Erick Reilly

    I’ve heard of female warriors in Japan, but never knew much of anything about them. Still, this is pretty cool. Good movie material.

  • Foozlesprite

    I’ve read about them in a few places…I know I’ve read the Wikipedia page and at least 2 other articles, though I forget where.  They’re really neat and the legends inspired me to get a (wooden) practice naginata and start working out with it.  I’ve always been into female warriors.  One of my favorite book series is the ‘In the Hand of the Goddess’ series by Tamora Pierce, where a female disguises herself as a twin to enter knight training.  I suppose it only made sense for me to learn about the onna bugeisha when I got into Japanese language/culture.

  • John

    I’m kind of sad I had no idea they were even a thing until just recently :(

  • Juli

    i’ve never heard of them.
    but i bet they were totally awesome!

  • OmenSpirits

    This article is very interesting and informing, I wish the tone and word choice if the writer were more formal. Words like awesome and baby machine are a hinderance to the presentation of the content.

  • Nanoa

     What site do you think you are on?? This is Tofugu, it is a Blog, and this type familiar tone is taken throughout its articles, that is many people choose to read it.  It would be bizarre if John suddenly decided to write in a tone that reflected an academic text. If you want that, I suggest you go elsewhere, I think you will be disappointed here.

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     I say! This blog knows not the meaning of class!

    _██_(ಠ_ృ)Good day!

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     Aw, no! My top hat fell off! Bogus!

  • Joseph Goforth

    there’s actually an achievement in Total War: Shogun 2 called Onna-Bugeisha — Win a defensive siege battle with the lady of the house, the Onna-Bugeisha, as your general.
    the only way of getting it is to have your castle attacked while your army is off away with all the male leaders.

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     Also, one of the expansion packs adds in Onna Bushi.

  • John

    Hahaha, that’s fantastic. Video games are always educational.

  • Travisnamewebster

    Never heard of them. Was mulan one?

  • John

    Mulan was Chinese.

  • Jon E.

    All I knew of were female “Ronin”. :-o This was a really awesome article! Thanks, John!

  • John

    No problem, glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    ಠ_ರೃ

  • http://thepretentiousgamer.blogspot.com Rachel

    Awesome! I learned something, and the pictures were gorgeous.

  • http://twitter.com/Kasuti Kirstie~✧

    There’s a dance performed near the end of a movie called ‘Sen-hime to Hideyori’ that reminded me quite strongly of Onna Bugeisha.

    I’ve uploaded the dance here, if the link is kind to me: http://youtu.be/N2PvnwPWvQs

  • John

    Oh, yeah – got the naginata and everything. Nice :)

  • Kwbee

    We can’t forget the legendary Lady Tomoe Gozen, samurai warrior associated with the Minamoto clan in the 12th century. There are some great stories associated with her amazing battle prowess… she kicked butt!

  • John

    Not to mention Nakano Takeko and Hojo Masako!

  • http://jeremybeasley.com/ jeremy beasley

    Does anyone know of any anime, movies, books featuring onna bugeisha?

  • Mushroom Bridge

    I’ve read stuff like that before….but I’ve never known what they were called or that they had a term to begin with.

  • ChocolatePig

    This is very helpful! I don’t know why, but the way you wrote it helped me to enjoy the article! Makes the issus, well, less stressing :)

  • ChocolatePig

    issue*

  • DarthTagnan

    Very elegant. Very deadly.

  • DarthTagnan

    This is an amazing article about untold or unknown Japanese History. Thank you for the information.

  • Michelle

    I remember reading about them briefly as a kid in my history books when learning about samurais but they didn’t mention them too much. It’s not surprising that they didn’t get much recognition being that they were women and didn’t feel they deserve much significance since being a woman and warrior was a taboo.

  • destiney

    thanks john very hepful