Indelible Women

The female warrior in Japan

Often correspondents make me aware of articles they feel I’d be interested in. This was the case a while back when Vice featured one about Japanese women warriors. It’s definitely a topic I’m interested in and the actual information about the historical women warriors was pretty good, though it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.

I did, however, take issue with the central argument of the piece, which right from the title, is that these figures were “Erased from History”.¹ The claim is somewhat self serving, of course, as the journalist makes herself the discoverer of this lost information. When did this erasure take place and by whom? I wondered, thinking immediately of the well-known exploits of Tomoe Gozen (巴 御前), among many others. The article seems to offer multiple theories: during the Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府, 1600–1868), the Meiji era (明治, 1868–1912), or by Westerners coming into contact with the culture.

Let’s look at these claims one at a time, beginning with the Tokugawa or Edo period (江戸時代). In the article, Hastings states:2

The advent of the Edo Period at the beginning of the 17th century brought a huge shift to the status of women in Japanese society. During these years, the dominant Neo-Confucian philosophy [宋明理學] and burgeoning marriage market heralded a radical change for the onna-bugeisha [女武芸者], whose status as fearsome warriors stood in stark opposition to the new order of peace, political stability, and rigid social convention.

However, the Edo period marked a shift for everyone in Japanese society. In particular, the historically landed samurai class (侍), were dispossessed and their lands handed over to their feudal lords, the daimyō (大名). This left three options open to samurai, the first, and most unappealing one, was to become peasants, the second to become rōnin (浪人), which also meant leaving the country as it was at peace, or finally to find roles as paid retainers of the daimyō; essentially aristocratic bureaucrats and administrators. In short, there was no place in Japan for warriors of any type, although of course these changes would have landed harder on onna-bugeisha. Rulers at the end of the warring states period (戦国時代, Sengoku Jidai 1467–1615) sought to curtail the excesses of the warrior class in general, with both Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長) and his former retainer who came into power after him, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豐臣 秀吉), conducting sword hunts (刀狩, katanagari) late in the 18th century—immediately prior to the ascendancy of the Tokugawas. The countryside was scoured and weapons confiscated under these edicts in order to prevent others from coming into power by force of arms as these two just had done.

As to Confucian thought being a factor, paradoxically, it had come to Japan in the form of the the ritsuryō (律令) system, which contained both administrative and criminal codes, well before the time Hastings suggests, during the Asuka period (飛鳥時代, late 6th century–710). And moreover, the system’s collapse during Japan’s medieval period—again immediately prior to Tokugawa rule—is what actually ushered in widespread patriarchy across Japan. Before these changes in the social order, for example it was the norm for a man to marry into a woman’s family instead of the other way around.

Additionally, these male-led family structures may have been the norm, but exceptions could naturally be made among the aristocratic samurai class. A pair of letters sent by Toyotomi recently came to light, which were sent to his allies, the Munakata (宗像) clan, whose male head, Ujisada (氏貞) had recently died:3

Both letters were addressed to Saikaku [才鶴], showing that Hideyoshi acknowledged Ujisada’s wife as head of the Munakata clan.

In any case, as we saw in the case of Huā Mùlán (花 木蘭), when Confucianism encountered the woman warrior where they wanted to see a devoted wife and mother, rather than “erasing” her, they simply altered the narrative to better fit within their social dictates.

Hastings’ claims about the naginata (薙刀), a polearm with a sword-like blade, also struck me as odd:4

Martial arts training, therefore, was a means for a woman to practice servitude towards the men of the household, and cultivate an ordered, domesticated life free of the energies of war.

I was unable to find any support for this claim, but she did attribute it to an article by Ellis Amdur, a martial arts instructor who does not provide any source for his information, in his decidedly unscholarly work.5 The naginata was used ubiquitously in feudal Japan by samurai in general, warrior monks known as sōhei (僧兵), as well as ashigaru (足軽) general infantry, for entirely practical purposes: the weapon features the cutting prowess of the sword as well as the longer range of a polearm, which also allows better ability to block and greater leverage in attacks.

In any case if the erasure of warrior women was supposed to have been effected during the rule of the Tokugawas, Hastings herself contradicts it by opening the piece recounting the deeds of Nakano Takeko (中野 竹子) who fought in the Boshin War (戊辰戦争) in 1868, one of the conflicts leading up to the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) later that same year and long past the reforms of the Edo period.

But let’s talk about the Meiji period in case this is when women warriors are meant to have been disappeared. The government actually outlawed all samurai, male and female, also making Nakano one of the last if not the last of this warrior class—that’s right, the last samurai was a female one, and sure as hell not Tom Cruise. Again, this woman warrior being active after the Edo period flies in the face of Hastings’ claims as to any erasures having taken place during that time.

As for Westerners effecting an erasure of warrior women, Hastings presents no support for the idea. Such an effacement of a culture’s history would be rather unlikely to affect the people’s own views and as I’ve discussed in other articles, already during the Meiji era, foreign influence was being pushed back on, which became quite thorough during the subsequent Taishō period (大正, 1912–1926).

Nonetheless, as Hastings suggests, Westerners have fetishized Japanese women essentially from their first sight of them, with French naval officer Pierre Loti writing the novel Madame Chrysanthème in 1887, a nearly autobiographical account of an affair he had with Kane Kiku (金菊) when he was stationed in Nagasaki (長崎) in the summer of 1885. The work was highly successful, running to 25 editions in five years, and inspiring several other works including Giacomo Pucini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly. Loti’s exoticist and reductive view was summed up as, “France for food, Japan for wives.”

Writer Lafcadio Hearn, although also from the West (Greek-Irish by way of the US), settled in Japan, was married, had a family, and became a teacher. Understanding the culture on a much deeper level, he commented:6

Of course Loti is very unjust to the Japanese woman, and has not yet even learned that to understand the beauty of another race so remote as the Japanese, requires both time and study. It does not strike a European at the first glance. He knows also nothing about their morals or manners, and his divinations are all wrong on these subjects.

And so finally, there is a thread of truth here: I doubt that you’ll hear much about Japan’s warrior women in a history class outside of the country unless you get in pretty deep. I may indeed have stumbled onto the germ of Hastings’ article, whence I conjecture an editor asking for its claims to be more far reaching. It should probably have been something like:

Hey, Uneducated Roundeye, You Probably Haven’t Heard of Japan’s Warrior Women

Which actually would have been a good bet, but means this article is not directed at me. Not only did I live and work in Japan for several years, certainly researching history extensively while working on many of the highly accurate games based in Japan’s past my employer, Kōei (光栄) was famous for, but I also acted as a bit of a research assistant for my wife when she produced a set of books about the nation’s history and culture as part of her master’s degree. As Hearn did, she and I both came to understand Japanese culture on a deeper level, including the fact that while it appears patriarchal, the apron strings are strong, as writer Kaori Shoji notes:7

On the surface, Japan is entrenched in a fukenshakai (父権社会, patriarchal society), but if the nation’s women were to quit their chores en masse, the damage would be far more serious than any earthquake. This is probably why the kanji characters for state (国家, kokka) consist of kuni (, country) and ie (, house) and finances are often called daidokorojijyō (台所事情, kitchen circumstances).

This is why, for example, banks and insurance companies always target women in advertising—with few exceptions they are the financial decision makers of the household.

Another point of access to the Japanese traditions of the woman warrior for me was ukiyo-e (浮世絵), an art form I’ve been a fan of for quite a long time. Edo Japan being a closed society, there was a high degree of regulation and censorship of the arts, and even sumptuary laws dictating what the burgeoning merchant class could wear. As to art, even in the somewhat more open culture of late 19th century Britain, Leopold I of Belgium warned his niece, Queen Victoria:8

[D]ealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that very reason dangerous.

Ukiyo-e was especially troubling as it was an art clamored for by the masses: beautiful, vividly colored works that, as they were prints, could be reproduced in vast numbers and sold cheaply. The Tokugawa government went from outright bans and punishment of artists to dictating everything down to the sizes of paper that could be used and heavy censorship of themes, content, and representations thereof. Artists were required to produce smaller scale black-and-white proofs of the works they intended to create and submit them for approval before they could proceed. The final prints feature government stamps showing that they had been officially authorized. And there are many, many prints of female warriors.

Therefore these woodblock prints tell a different story—they made it past the careful censorship of the Tokugawa administration, so they can’t have been controversial, and were included in series about warriors rather than beauties (Bijin 美人)—an extremely popular theme. We can only conclude the artists and the government wanted to celebrate their badassery without regard to gender.

And also, it seems without regard to origin: legendary warriors from China and Korea also appeared in prints. When I worked on Bandit Kings of Ancient China (『水滸伝・天命の誓い』, Suikoden: Tenmei no Chikai, the subtitle translating as “oath of destiny”), a game based on the Chinese classic, The Water Margin (《水滸傳》; Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), I created a black-and-white splash page image based on a woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡 芳年), one of my favorite artists of all time. The image is of one of the main characters (and one of the most colorful ones), Lu Zhishen (魯智深, Japanese Rochishen), who is in the process of smashing the guardian statues of his own monastery, ’cause he’s drunk and crazy.

Later, while I was still working at Kōei I visited Aomori (青森), at the northern end of Honshu (本州), Japan’s main island, for the Nebuta festival (ねぶた祭り), which presents heroic figures in colorful floats made of paper and lit from within. The imagery is closely connected with ukiyo-e both thematically and visually, and indeed some of the merch sold there was two-dimensional art. I selected a noren (暖簾) featuring Gu Dasao (顧大嫂, Japanese Kodaisō), somewhat personal to me from having worked on Bandit Kings, in which she appears. Her image adorned the doorway to our kitchen for many years and I regretted not knowing there were awesome ukiyo-e of this warrior woman such as this one by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳) when I was working on the game.


  1. Christobel Hastings, “How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan’s Women Samurai, Were Erased From History”, Vice, 2018.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kunihiko Imai, “Hideyoshi acknowledged woman as head of samurai clan”, Asahi Shimbun, 2019. Note that there’s a weird tradition of using the leader’s given name.
  4. Hastings.
  5. Ellis Amdur, “Women Warriors of Japan, The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History”, 2002.
  6. Lafcadio Hearn, Letters, 1893-1894.
  7. Kaori Shoji, “Nadeshiko—adorable till they die”, The Japan Times, 2013.
  8. The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence Between the Years 1837 and 1861, 1907. The quote has appeared lately in a slightly pithier form and with various incorrect attributions.