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Japan has an international reputation for being a social system somehow based on patriarchy and the Japanese tradition returns us a mostly stereotyped image of its women, historically presenting them as very devoted wives, who commit suicide on the death of their groom, or mothers who grow up children in the spirit of a family revenge or even pitiful women who induce the husband not to rage on the children of the defeated enemy.

Indeed, the traditional role of the woman in Japan has been defined as that of the three submissions: young women are submissive to their fathers, married women are submissive to their husbands, and older women are submissive to their sons. It looks like a scenario of ancient times, and in fact it corresponds to the historical image of the Japanese woman, who until not too long ago, that is until 1908, could have been the victim of murder by her husband, who was not found guilty, as it was a legally recognized action.

It really seems a barbarism from a distant past, but I would like to remember that it is a sad history the similar abolition of the honour killing, which in Italy took place only in 1981, seventy years after the abolition in Japan!

In the two fundamental texts of the art of the sword as Hagakure (see the series of articles Hagakure: quotation and comments by Vittorio Secco) and The Book of the Five Rings, the canons and principles of Japanese martial culture are centered on the values ​​of Bushido and Zen according to the vision of the impermanence of existence, but those are texts traditionally written by men who speak about men and addressed to a male audience.

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The Genji Monogatari, an XII century novel considered one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature and of all time, was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, to meet the taste of the court ladies of the period. A different picture emerges about both men and women, their strengths and weaknesses, their education in every field and in social relationships, thus making an image very different from the one traditionally associated with the Japanese woman, whose condition it has obviously not always been the same in different historical periods.

Leaving aside the numerous female deities, first of all perhaps Izanami, the goddess who together with her brother Izanagi brought order into primordial chaos and created the first Japanese island, and Amaterasu, the goddess of the rising sun, there were a lot of figures of significant importance in Japanese history, as they rose to the role of empress, starting from the middle of the first millennium.

Eight women have held such role, albeit in two very limited periods of time:

  • Nukatabe, Empress Suiko, 33rd in order of succession, from 593 to 628
  • Takara, Empress Kogyoku, 35th from 642 to 645, and 37th from 655 to 661 with the name of Empress Saimei
  • Unonosasara, Empress Jito, 41st from 686 to 687
  • Ahe, Empress Genmei, 43rd from 707 to 715
  • Hitaka, Empress Gensho, 44th from 715 to 724
  • Abe, Empress Kohen, 46th from 749 to 758 and 48th from 764 to 700 with the name of Empress Shotoku
  • Okiko, Empress Meisho, 109th from 1629 to 1643
  • Toshiko, Empress Go-Sakuramachi, 117th from 1762 to 1771.

At a certain point, however, the social power excluded women from the throne, it is said because of the illicit relationship that the empress Sotoku, in the VII century, had with a monk and which attracted a profound reproach. Confucianism, however, an import philosophy, negatively conditioned the position of the Japanese woman, as it prescribed blind obedience to men. But the ancient Japanese native religion, Shinto, did not know closures of this kind and in fact many kami, or divinities of nature, are associated with fertility and procreation.

Despite these few examples of particularly influential women, the traditional Japanese patriarchal society and the historical relegation to roles certainly not central to society and the nation, and despite the fact that the female gender still had the qualities to effectively manage wealth, lands and families, however, there are two well-defined categories thanks to which women have assumed the fame linked to strength, discipline, fighting strength and samurai ethics most typical of the male world: spy women, Kunoichi, and warrior women , Onna Bugeisha.

It may be difficult to think about the strength and fighting skills of Japanese women when the most typical images handed down by the Japanese tradition are those of the housewife, the peasant or the geisha, but I think it is equally valid to remember how in Japan the male and the feminine are however two aspects of the one, and as Taisen Deshimaru reminds us, the samurai themselves learned the yawara, the technique of sweetness, and were trained both in the arts of war and in those of civil life.

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The Kunoichi make their first appearance in written texts thanks to the Bansenshukai, eight volumes compiled in the late XVII century in which the art of Kunoichi no jutsu, the ninjutsu of ninja women, is described, according to which the main function of the Kunoichi was espionage . The meaning of ninja women, on the other hand, seems to be decidedly more modern, making the first appearance in a 1964 novel, Ninpo Hakkenden by Futaro Yamada. Some of these figures have assumed legendary connotations, thanks to their adventurous lives which, as in the best ninja tradition, are finally lost in the fumes of history.

Hatsume no Tsubone

Legendary woman of the Sengoku era, a Kunoichi at service of Tokugawa Ieyasu to spy on the enemy Ishida Mitsunari before the battle of Sekigahara.

She was born in Iga, the famous ninja village, in a family close to the Takeda clan. After the death of her father she placed herself at service under the Mogami clan, and it is said that she finally fell in love with Ishida Mitsunari and worked in his army, thanks to the services rendered to the Tokugawa and which guaranteed her free access to Edo, so that she could inform the lover regarding the plans of the enemy. After betraying Ieyasu and attempting to kill him, she was sentenced to death, but she managed to take refuge in Sawayama castle in Omi province and become a samurai lady into the Mistunari clan. After Ishida Mitsunari’s death in the battle of Sekigahara, she disappeared completely to the point that her very existence is questioned.

Mochizuki Chiyome

She was a poet and a noble of the XVI century, and had remained in history for creating a group of Kunoichi at the service of Takeda clan.

Descendant of the fifteenth-century ninja Mochizuki Izumo-no-Kami of the Koga-ryu and wife of the samurai lord Mochizuki Moritoki, after her husband’s detah in the fourth battle of Kawanajima, she was left in the care of the daimyo Takeda Shingen, who commissioned her to create a net of Kunoichi to be uses against his enemies. Given her origins linked to a long lineage of ninja, Takeda considered her the best candidate to manage a group of spies and agents for the recovery of information and coded transmissions. Mochizuki began to recruit women among entertainers, victims of the civil wars of the Sengoku period and orphans of war to train them to become informers, seductresses, messengers, murderers, also training them as miko, the priestesses of Shinto temples, so to allow them to travel undisturbed. She managed to create a network of hundreds of agents that allowed Takeda Shingen to be always one step ahead of his opponents, until his death in 1573, after which, like Hatusme, Mochizuki disappeared from history.

Umemura Sawano

Once again a Kunoichi at the service of the Takeda clan, or at least that is what it is believed, Sawano is mentioned in a ninjutsu scroll handed down in the Matsushiro domain, the Secret Denshu, in which she is presented as the founder of this school. Sawano worked for the Sanada clan, whose head was the Matsushiro daimyo, a clan already at the service of the Takeda clan.

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Something more certain exists instead regarding the Onna Bugeisha, the warrior women, or Onna Musha, the samurai women, both terms with which the warrior women are referred to in pre-modern Japan. They fought in battle alongside their male counterparts, were effective members of the bushi class, the samurai, and were obviously trained in the use of weapons to protect dominion, family and honour during wartime. Also known as Besshikime, they were also used to guard the residences of daimyo wives and concubines.

Strictly speaking, it is wrong, and almost a paradox, to speak of samurai women, as the samurai title was attributed exclusively to men. But since it is not uncommon, in the most remote feudal period, that the women of samurai families had to spend even long periods without their men, engaged in military campaigns, they therefore began to play a crucial role for the management and, at times, even for the survival of the home and family, making important decisions in the economic field, in addition to the fact that they were also partly entrusted with the education of their children, to whom they tried to transmit the principles of warrior ethics such as courage, sense of honour and loyalty.

These women were instructed in the use of the straight spear, yari, and mainly the curved spear, naginata, symbolic weapon of warrior women, as well as the short dagger, kaiken, which they usually wore on their sleeves or sashes and that was used for the ritual suicide or for the suicide of protest against an injustice perpetrated by a superior.

Naginata definitely has a niche between katana and yari, being quite effective in close combat when the opponent has to be kept at bay, and is also relatively efficient against cavalry. Due to its use by many legendary samurai women, the naginata was pushed as the iconic image of the warrior woman and during the Edo period many schools were created focusing on the use of this inast weapon which perpetuated its association with women.

Many Onna Bugeisha also developed a remarkable skill in the art of the bow, often particularly powerful, while a particular emphasis was also placed on ranged weapons, as they were used preferably for the garrison of defensive structures, including their houses often targeted by marauders aware of the absence of men engaged in wars.

There are not as little evidences of the participation, even charismatic strength and courage in battle of warrior women, in the Kamakura (1185-1333), Sengoku (1467-1603), Edo (1603-1868) and even later periods, and the list of these women, unlike the Kunoichi, is decidedly more full-bodied. Here are some of the Onna Bugeisha who have contributed most to popularize theirs in this important category.

Empress Jingu

Perhaps the first female warrior figure, legendary Japanese empress from 201 to 269 whose deeds are reported by Kojiki and Nihon Soki, she led the invasion army in Korea when she was a princess, from which she returned victorious after three years of campaign, which is why she was finally proclaimed empress. Legend also has it that the invasion war was preceded by the search for revenge on those who had killed her husband, another typical activity that characterises the historical figure of the Japanese woman.

In 1881 Jingu became the first woman to be represented on a Japanese banknote, but since there were no images of the empress, the representation was artistically elaborated by the Italian Edoardo Chiossone, but it was entirely conjectural, as he actually used an employee as a model of the Government Press Office: that same image was then later used for the stamps of the period 1908-1914, the first in Japan to depict a woman.

Tomoe Gozen

Militant in the ranks of General Minamoto no Yoshinaka, she is the only warrior woman described in the epic literature of the samurai tradition, always aimed at heroicising men. Not much is known about her life, and the little information seems not to be too reliable, but she is described as one of the protagonists of the Genpei war that led to the formation of the Kamakura shogunate.

Known for killing Uchida Ieyoshi and escaping capture by Hatakeyama Shigetada, it is said that, during the battle of Awazu in 1184, she beheaded Musashi’s Honda no Morishige and, after presenting her head to chief Yoshinaka, her reputation she became so great that she was considered Japan’s first female general.

Hangaku Gozen

Another mythical figure among the few recognized in classical Japanese literature, she played an important role during the Kennin rebellion against the Kamakura shogunate in 1201. Lived between the Heian and Kamakura eras, she was a member of the Taira clan and together with her family became an integral part of the defense forces of the Torisaka castle, being noted for her qualities of leadership and courage during the three months of the battle, in which she led three thousand soldiers against the ten thousand of the Hojo clan. Unfortunately siding with the losers, after the fierce battle she was captured, wounded, by the enemy forces, and presented to the shogun Minamoto Yoriiye, struck by her beauty and reputation, as “fearless as a man and beautiful as a flower”. She was prevented from doing seppuku and ordered to marry one of Yoriiye samurai, to whom it is reported she bore a son, but there are no particular details of subsequent life of hers.

Hojo Masako

Japanese Buddhist and political nun, she wielded significant power in the early Kamakura period, which was reflected in her contemporary nickname of “shogun nun”, wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo and mother of Minamoto no Yoriiye and Minamoto no Sanetomo, the former, the latter and third shogun of the Kamakura period.

Masako was born in 1156, in a Japan dominated by wars and conflicts, and unlike the women of her house, she was educated into fishing and hunting, to ride horseback, and was used to eating with men: in the Genpei war, from 1182 in 1199, together with her family she accompanied Yoritomo into battle, without suffering any defeat. When at the end of the war Yoritomo was appointed shogun by Emperor Go-Shirakawa, he obtained a prestige and a power that was finally passed to Masako and the Hojo clan, but on the death of her husband she became a nun: nontheless she was able to keep the power relations that saw her as the director of various actions to protect her family, so much so that she came to act as a real shogun when the infant Fujiwara no Yoritsune, closely linked to the Hojo clan, was installed in 1219.


Concubine and second wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, she was a prominent figure of the late Sengoku period. In a period characterised by constant turmoils, interested in administration and politics, she was an active part in the war against the Tokugawa, leading the defense of Osaka Castle. Due to her conduct, Yodo-dono has often been portrayed as a “wicked and unrestrained” woman who planned the demise of the Toyotomi themselves. Also known as Lady Chacha, after Hideyoshi’s death she took the tonsure, becoming a Buddhist nun and taking the name Daikoin, and becoming the founder of the Yogen-in temple. She committed suicide in the flames of the capitulated Osaka castle putting an end to the Toyotomi dynasty.

Ohori Tsuruhime

Warrior of the Sengoku period, she fought numerous battles and due to the alleged divine inspirations combined with her fighting skills she become soon compared to Joan of Arc: her legacy made her one of the most recognizable warriors in Japanese history .

Daughter of the Shinto high priest Ohori Yasumochi of the Oyamazumi temple dedicated to Amaterasu, she inherited the status of her father upon his death, at the age of fifteen: trained in martial arts since childhood, she was in charge of the defense forces of her island against the attacks by samurai troops, leading her faction to victory, it seems even going so far as to challenge the enemy general, Takakoto, to a duel, whose contemptuous words against Tsuruhime were not as sharp as the blade with which he was struck by our heroine.

She is said to have committed suicide at a very young age after learning of the death of her fiance in one of their several war actions.

Yamakawa Futaba

Futaba was a warrior much closer to nowadays, having lived between the XIX and XX centuries. She was a Japanese educator of the early Meiji era and took part in the defense of Tsuruga Castle during the Boshin War (1868-1869). She was also briefly married to Kajiwara Heima, an Aizu karo, a term inherited from feudal Japan for samurai officers of high level, at the time advisors and direct servants of the Daimyos.

In the Meiji era, Futaba worked at the Tokyo Women’s Normal School, the forerunner of Ochanomizu University, and because her work in education she was awarded the 5th Court Rank, one of the hereditary degrees of the nobility of court.

Niijima Yae

Considered one of the last female samurai, she led the Joshitai, the army of girls, and fought in the Boshin war at the head of numerous actions against the imperial forces. Also known as Yamamoto Yae, skilled marksman with firearms, she earned in battle the nickname Joan of Arc of Bakumatsu, the final period of the Bakufu era.

She was the daughter of an artillery instructor samurai of the Aizu domain, and she defended Aizuwakamatsu castle against government forces. After the fall of the castle, the escape and divorce from her husband, she worked in a girls’ school and specialised in sado, the art of tea, obtaining the highest qualification, and taking the name of Niijima Sochiku. She also had an essential role in the foundation of the Doshisha English School, that became a private university in Kyoto known as Dodai, today one of the most prestigious Japanese schools. In the latter part of her life she became an active member of the Red Cross, as a nurse and as an instructor, during the Russian-Japanese and Chinese-Japanese wars between the XIX and XX centuries, becoming the first woman out of the imperial house after the Meiji Restoration in 1870 to be decorated for the services rendered to the nation.

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Although they generally do not represent the traditional image of the shy and submissive Japanese woman, these women continue to have a strong impact in martial arts, as well as in literature and popular culture, influencing naginata schools and their techniques but also becoming the symbols of the struggle for the rights of Japanese women, especially Yamakawa Futaba and Niijima Yae.

In late compared to the historical date for the celebration of March 8th, because of the blog editorial calendar, this post claims to be just a humble contribution celebrating the passion and strength of all the Onna Bugeisha in a broader sense, from all eras and in every the parts of the world, those ladies whose actions and values have shown how there is no gender difference, with a particular mention to those closest to us and supporting us with their extreme strength, patience and benevolence allowing us to feed our passions in the art of the sword.

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– Bushido per donne guerriere, a cura di Marina Panatero e Tea Pecunia, Feltrinelli


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