The Forgotten Lives of Samurai Women

Did you know that female samurai trace back to as early as 200 AD in Japan! Known as onna-bugeisha, meaning “women warrior,” they trained the same as men, fought alongside the male samurai, were expected to perform the same duties, and were held to the same standards as their male counterparts. Every bit as powerful and lethal as male samurai, these women helped settle new lands, defended their territory, had a legal right to supervise lands as jito (stewards), and would join the fight in times of war.

However, during the Japanese Tokugawa Period which lasted from 1603 to 1868, a new order of peace and political stability took hold in the country. Samurai men, who once only used their skills in combat, became high ranking bureaucrats for the Japanese Empire. Official records served the government and male samurai society to create an image of stable paternalism and men’s controlling power. Samurai women faced repression and subjugation, expected to live passive lives as wives and dutiful mothers. 

But not all traces of the samurai women were lost. When one of these onna-bugeisha married, it was customary for her to take her naginata (a pole weapon and one of several varieties of traditionally made Japanese blades) into her husband’s home, though to use it only for “moral training.” Doing so would remind her of her former place in society while instilling the virtues necessary to be a samurai wife, those of strength, submission, and endurance. 

Even in an era centered on bureaucracy, the mid-17th century saw a reemergence of the onna-bugeisha. Martial arts schools opened around the country, and the art of naginata was seen as an excellent way to teach discipline, fitness, and a set of ethics to its students, including females. Also, a period of peace in Japan came to an end, and these women had to protect their villages, fighting off threats just as they had done centuries earlier. Even in the late 19th century, during the last battles between the ruling Tokugawa clan and imperial forces, a unique fighting unit of women known as the Jōshitai was created and run by members of the onna-bugeisha!

On July 20, join Professor Luke Roberts of University of California, Santa Barbara, to take a deeper look at the lives of samurai women. He will speak at JANM about his recent research into the lives of these women who hailed from Kōchi, an area in southwestern Japan. Following the lecture, Roberts will be joined by Hawaii State Senator Brian Taniguchi and his wife, Jan, to talk about this subject and artifacts from their family. RSVP here.

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