In medieval Japan, samurai was a class distinction as well as a job description. Women who were born into the samurai class were samurais whether or not they were warriors. As members of the warrior class, they shared the martial code of loyalty and honor known as bushido. Many of them were trained to use the naginata–a deadly scythe-like weapon–and carried razor-sharp daggers on their belts. They shared the disgrace when their male relations failed on the battlefield, following them into exile and even death.
Only a few samurai women became samurai warriors, but their stories are a constant thread through Japanese history. The most famous was the twelfth century warrior Tomoe Gozen, who fought alongside Minamoto Kiso Yoshinaka in the Gempei War* and collected enemy heads as battle trophies just like one of the guys. Her story became the subject of songs and a popular Noh play. But Tomoe was not the only female samurai to fight in Japan’s seemingly interminable internal wars. Tsuruhime, known as the sea princess of Omishimia, defended that island against expansionist threats from the Japanese mainland in 1541. Thirty-six years later, Ueno Tsuruhime led thirty-three other women in a suicidal charge against the army of a rival warlord–preferring to die in battle than commit the ritual suicide prescribed by her husband. (The tactic failed. The besieging samurai proved reluctant to kill women who fought back.) Near the end of the Amakusa rebellion in 1589-90, the wife of the castle commander of the largely Christian stronghold at Hondo and several hundred other women cut off their long hair, tied up the hems of their kimonos, armed themselves with weapons and rosaries, and sortied from the broken castle gate in a final desperate attack.
Even in nineteenth century, when the world of the samurai was coming to an end, some women from samurai families joined their fathers, husbands and brothers on the battlefield against the forces of the Meiji emperor. In Daughters of the Samurai, Janice Nimura tells the story of one young woman who tried to take a more active role in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. With her family stronghold under siege, “the teenager scavenged pieces of discarded armor, chopped off her hair, pulled down the corners of her mouth in a classic samurai grimace, and announced that she was off to join the fighting.” In her case, the samurai value of obedience won out over the samurai value of courage–when her mother forbade her to leave the castle she stayed put. But other women, old enough or stubborn enough not to be controlled by parental commands, chose to fight rather than fulfill more traditional roles related to the defense of a stronghold or commit ritual suicide. In one extraordinary case, Kawahara Asako decapitated her mother-in-law and daughter to save them from dishonor at the hands of the enemy before she took up her naginata and joined the fight against the imperial army.
With the exception of Tomoe Gozen, who appears to have fought because she was good at it, these stories share common themes of defense and desperation. A far cry from their modern pop culture descendants.
*In which two samurai clans–the Taira and the Minamoto–duked it out for control of Japan. The Gempei War ended with the Minamoto’s victorious establishment of the first shogunate–a form of government by military dictatorship in the name of a puppet emperor that would last in various forms from 1192 to 1867. In case you were curious.