Female Samurai Warriors Immortalized in 19th Century Japanese Photos

Most of my generation’s expo­sure to Japan­ese cul­ture came heav­i­ly medi­at­ed by ani­me and samu­rai films. One cul­tur­al arti­fact that stands out for me is TV minis­eries Shogun, an adap­ta­tion of James Clavell’s pop­u­lar nov­el, which gives us a view of Japan through the eyes of a British nov­el­ist and his British hero (played by Richard Cham­ber­lain in the film). Shogun depicts a feu­dal Japan­ese war­rior cul­ture cen­tered on exag­ger­at­ed dis­plays of mas­culin­i­ty, with women oper­at­ing in the mar­gins or behind the scenes.

Even the great Aki­ra Kurosawa’s visions of feu­dal Japan, like The Sev­en Samu­rai, are “not exact­ly inun­dat­ed with the stun­ning pow­er of female war­riors bran­dish­ing katanas,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “it’s a bit of a  ソーセージ-fest.”

And yet, it turns out, “such women did exist.” Known as onna bugeisha, these fight­ers “find their ear­li­est pre­cur­sor in Empress Jingū, who in 200 A.D. led an inva­sion of Korea after her hus­band Emper­or Chūai, the four­teenth emper­or of Japan, per­ished in bat­tle.” Empress Jingū’s exam­ple endured. In 1881, she became the first woman on Japan­ese cur­ren­cy.

Pre­ced­ing the all-male samu­rai class depict­ed in Clavell and Kuro­sawa, the onna bugeisha “learned to use nag­i­na­ta, kaiken, and the art of tan­to Jut­so in bat­tle,” the Vin­tage News tells us. Rather than pay mer­ce­nar­ies to defend them, as the ter­ri­fied towns­folk do in Sev­en Samu­rai, these women trained in bat­tle to pro­tect “com­mu­ni­ties that lacked male fight­ers.”

The onna bugeisha’s eth­ic was as pur­port­ed­ly as uncom­pro­mis­ing as the samu­rai, and it shows in these fierce por­traits from the 1800s. Although many tales of promi­nent onna bugeisha come from the 12th-13th cen­turies, one famous fig­ure, Nakano Takeko lived in the 19th cen­tu­ry, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, and died quite the war­rior’s death:

While she was lead­ing a charge against Impe­r­i­al Japan­ese Army troops she was shot in the chest. Know­ing her remain­ing time on earth to be short, Takeko asked her sis­ter, Yūko, to cut her head off and have it buried rather than per­mit the ene­my to seize it as a tro­phy. It was tak­en to Hōkai Tem­ple and buried under­neath a pine tree.

Anoth­er revered fight­er, Tomoe Gozen, appears in The Tale of the Heike (often called the “Japan­ese Ili­ad). She is described as “espe­cial­ly beau­ti­ful,” and also as “a remark­ably strong archer… as a swordswoman she was a war­rior worth a thou­sand, ready to con­front a demon or a god, mount­ed or on foot.”

In the pho­tos here—and many more at The Vin­tage News—we get a sense of what such a leg­endary badass may have looked like.


via Vin­tage News/Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

Leg­endary Japan­ese Author Yukio Mishi­ma Mus­es About the Samu­rai Code (Which Inspired His Hap­less 1970 Coup Attempt)

How Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Sev­en Samu­rai Per­fect­ed the Cin­e­mat­ic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Vlasta Radan says:

    This was my response to a FB replay to my shar­ing of the arti­cle above. Ques­tion was “So these are not actu­al samu­rai but depic­tions of fig­ures from leg­end? Rather like the leg­ends of ama­zons?”
    My answer: “I agree, there are some stretch­ing and cher­ry pick­ing of the facts. Arti­cle does not quite accu­rate­ly ref­er­ence the pho­tographs — like, when and where they were tak­en. This are not daguerreo­types, so I am guess­ing this pho­tographs are more like turn or ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry stu­dio por­traits. Samu­rai as the class were for­mal­ly estab­lished dur­ing 12th cen­tu­ry and abol­ished in late 1800s (from the Wikipedia arti­cle about Samu­rai). So any pho­tographs of samu­rais after 1900s would be of “reen­act­ment” type. Arti­cle is ref­er­enc­ing female fig­ures from peri­ods pro­ceed­ing full for­ma­tion of male samu­rai order (“find their ear­li­est pre­cur­sor in Empress Jingū, who in 200 A.D.…”), which is mis­lead­ing as in any for­ma­tion peri­od there are many dif­fer­ent play­ers before strict rules and forms are estab­lished. Are female samu­rai com­plete myth? I am sure that any cul­ture have their Joan of Arc… How­ev­er, I am find­ing inter­est­ing and prob­a­bly worth the research/explanation from experts in Japan­ese cul­ture, how is it that this girls find appeal­ing to poise dressed as samurai/warriors, and how they man­aged to get away (or were they encour­aged?) with in such mas­cu­line and patri­ar­chal cul­ture.”

  • Ethlenn says:

    Thing is, Empress Jin­gu is most like­ly a cre­ation — she was insert­ed into the impe­r­i­al line in Mei­ji peri­od based on Koji­ki, sure, but with one pur­pose — to strength­en the mytho­log­i­cal and divine roots of one Japan­ese eth­nic­i­ty that has every right to rule over its Asian neigh­bours. I would point to Queen Himiko as the pre­cur­sor of the lat­er female war­riors, although she was not a samu­rai (they did­n’t exist in the 3rd cen­tu­ry). I also have doubts these pic­tures show actu­al war­riors, they are most like­ly geishas dressed in samu­rai attire. Let’s not for­get that dur­ing Jidai Mat­suri, Tomoe Gozen is played by geisha.
    Female war­riors exist­ed, but they were not pre­vail­ing.

  • Tracy Harms says:

    This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Clavel­l’s nov­el seems inac­cu­rate in obvi­ous ways. Clavell empha­sized Samu­rai as a social class, thus includ­ing men and women alike. The readi­ness of Samu­rai women to fight to kill was plain in sev­er­al scenes, and their skill with weapons was pre­sent­ed as high. Their sta­tus­es, both as priv­i­leged and as duty bound, par­al­leled those of Samu­rai men.

    I am con­fi­dent James Clavell gave a more bal­anced dra­ma depict­ed feu­dal Japan than claimed by Josh Jones.

  • Jeff Down says:

    Please do a lit­tle more research, there are many prints depict­ing women in bat­tle. Like any sto­ry from any cul­ture hand­ed down through the gen­er­a­tions, there is some truth to the his­tor­i­cal events. For those inter­est­ed, I had an aunt that was trained in the mar­tial arts as a woman Samuri. She was born in Amer­i­ca and sent back by my grand­fa­ther to attend one of the acad­e­mies. She told me she was picked on by the oth­er girls for not being born in Japan. How­ev­er her instruc­tor liked her and she received addi­tion­al per­son­al instruc­tion. Aunt Grace returned to the States before WW2 broke out and used to trav­el the west coast giv­ing demon­stra­tions with her Nag­i­na­ta. She taught fenc­ing for many years at the YMCA in SF. I have her prac­tice Nag­i­natas. She also had a prac­tice katana that she kept in her house. A rel­a­tive that saw her pre­form told me; she could fight like a man”! For those doubt­ing women Samuri, just imag­ine what it would be like to be chopped into pieces! Nev­er under­es­ti­mate a foe.

  • Katie Beaver says:

    I don’t like this arti­cle because it gives lit­tle infor­ma­tion about samu­rai woman.

  • Sam Barnes says:

    Can you tell me where I may find more infor­ma­tion on this sub­ject? I am very inter­est­ed on the his­to­ry, and truth about these women. Thank you.

  • Yoshikawa says:

    There is no real evi­dence of real female samu­rai. Please stop spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion.

  • Tomoki Yamamoto says:

    This is Badest Joke 4 Japan­ese.
    this is Image pho­to of Japan­ese his­tor­i­cal ladies.
    in those time in Japan­ese super­sti­tion that taked pho­to par­son are snatch thir soul from body,It’s tru­eli­cary bilieved.
    We Japan­ese Lol at your BAAAAAD Joke.
    Nice Sutur­day Thanks a lot.

  • Jedis says:

    This is not a real samu­rai. Just the pic­ture of fun like pop art.
    Do not mis­lead.

  • vidiai says:

    Da si bine ca doar n‑o sa stau sa‑l votez pe ioha­nies=))

  • Jeff Dumb says:

    Yeah, yeah. Get the spelling of “Samu­rai” right first.
    Samu­rai was abol­ished in Japan way way ear­li­er before the WW2, what the heck did your “aunt Grace” did in Japan? Smoked nori sea­weed?

  • Rita says:

    Hi when I was in Japan many years ago I went to a muse­um full of armour and weapons. It is on an island in Set­on­ai­ki. I have for­got­ten it’s name. There were women’s armour there.

  • curryman012345 says:

    ayy yo fam

    please require more in for­ma­tion about the samu­rai

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