Female Samurai - The Onna Bugeisha

4 minute read

Two Leaders

Tomoe Gozen, first captain and wife of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, surveyed the field where the final battle was sure to soon take place.  A warrior first and foremost, she was dressed in full armor and carrying an oversized sword as well as a bow. Her husband Yoshinaka had recently taken Kyoto, the capital, and set himself up as head of the Minamoto clan.  Unfortunately, his cousin Yoritomo couldn’t leave well enough alone and had sent his two brothers with armies after Yoshinaka. Driven out of Kyoto, Tomoe and Yoshinaka had retreated here to Awazu, where would soon begin the battle to decide the leadership of the Minamoto clan, and, because of its status of Japan’s most powerful clan, the entire country.  As first captain, it was her job to lead the soldiers into the part of the battle where the fighting was thickest and ensure the victory.

Hōjō Masako, wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo, sat with her husband in the command tent, helping to manage the affairs of her husband’s armies.  They had been waiting for several days to hear back from Yoritomo’s cousins, who had been sent to chase down Yoshinaka after he decided to split from the rest of the clan and set himself up as effective emperor, taking Kyoto and kidnapping the real emperor while burning down the palace in the process.  No stranger to the world of men, Masako had been raised among them rather than with her mother and sisters. and she had been taught  horseback riding, hunting, and fishing from a young age. While she was an expert warrior, she was an even better general, and her husband valued her leadership abilities and took her with him on all his military campaigns, where she led to great effect.

The Onna Bugeisha

Both Tomoe Gozen and Hōjō Masako are famous examples of Onna Bugeisha, more commonly known as female Samurai.  Japan’s past is filled with internal and domestic strife, with attacks between villages being quite common. Because of this, in ancient Japan, women were trained to defend their villages alongside the men, or without them if the villages lacked male fighters.  After the formation of the Samurai, some of these women became warriors in their own right.

One of the earliest Onna Bugeisha Empress Jingū is a figure shrouded in legend and is thought not to have existed as a historical figure. However, her story is important as it embodies the very spirit of what it means to be a female samurai.   According to some chronicles, she led Japan after the death of her late husband, the fourteenth emperor, until her son was old enough to take the throne. During this time, she not only improved Japan by making influential economic and social changes, but personally led a victorious invasion of Korea over the course of a three-year campaign.

The legacy of the Onna Bugeisha stretches over one and half millenia, from legends to modern history.  While Empress Ji is possibly the earliest, later examples of heroic women include Tomoe Gozen, Hojo Masako, and Nakano Takeko, who lived as late as 1868 and is credited with 172 samurai kills.  Of course, there are innumerable others who are not as well known, or have been lost to the ravages of history.

The Onna Bugeisha used naginata as their primary weapon, specifically the ko-naginata, a special version designed for women.  A naginata is basically a sword on a pole with a curved blade at the top. Because women are usually of smaller stature and have less upper body strength than men, their blades were smaller in order to reduce the weight. The main advantage of the naginata is that, because of its length and thus range, it partially negates the greater reach and strength advantage that men naturally have, allowing for more fair fights.  It was also very useful for dismounting riders in cavalry charges. The naginata eventually became as iconic to the social status of women as the Katana was the to the Samurai.


The battle was fierce, with Gozen mired in the thick of it. She fought soldier after soldier and pressed ever on, encouraging those around her through her example.  She climbed a ridge, and at the top, saw a line of Samurai at the bottom of the valley. Looking up, their eyes widened with recognition when they saw her, then they yelled and charged up the hill.  Calling her retinue to her, Gozen prepared to meet them. The first to fall to her Katana was Uchida Leyoshi. In his haste to capture her, he made a critical misstep that allowed her to step to the side and kill him.  His companion Hatakeyama Shigetada was a much better fighter. Dodging blow after blow, they fought valiantly, though both were tired already from the battle. When a slight respite allowed, Tomoe took stock of the situation and realized that her forces were being outrun. Knowing she was more valuable alive, she took the first opportunity she saw to disengage, and managed to leap on her horse and escape.  Determined to find her husband, she rode like the wind....

Masako noticed a disturbance in the outer camp.  Within a few minutes, a messenger was brought to them.  Her husband asked the messenger for news, and she listened attentively, wondering what changes in the campaign would soon need to be made.  The message was short but important: Yoshinaka and his forces had fallen. His wife Tomoe Gozen had been spotted leading near the front lines, and some of their best Samurai including Uchida Leyoshi and Hatakeyama Shigetada had attempted to capture her.  Unfortunately, she had managed to elude capture, killing Leyoshi in the process.  While no one knew where she went, her body had not been found among the dead. After the messenger left, Masako turned to her husband who was looking at her expectantly. With Yoshinaka out of the way and her husband now the strongest military leader in Japan, she knew her diplomatic talents would be crucial in the coming years. This was only the beginning.

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