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The Warrior Women of Feudal Japan

Updated on June 19, 2012
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Though Japan is a prevalently patriarchal society there have been many female heroes and rulers throughout Japanese history1,2.

Queen Himeko (c. 292 C.E.)

According to Chinese records of about C.E. 292 (an overlapping period of the Yayoi and Tomb cultures), the rulers in the country of Wa—regions easily identified as Kyushu and west Japan—were sometimes male and sometimes female. The Wei Chih records the reign of one powerful priestess-sovereign by the name of Queen Himeko or Pimiko “the Daughter of the Sun” who ruled in the kingdom of Wa at the end of the 3rd Century3.

Samurai and Bushi Wives (Feudal Japan to 1867)

Up until the end of the Edo period, the wives of Samurai and bushi (warriors) were expected to be both domestics (mothers, heads of household, teachers of children) and during wartime when the men went out to battle, the women were to be the defenders of the children and the family property4. During the rampant bloody warfare of the Sengoku-Jidai period, the task of defending whole towns often fell to women. During this time, there are accounts “of the wives of warlords, dressed in flamboyant armor, leading bands of women armed with naginata” (a pole weapon with a curved blade on the end). Among their other martial duties, the task also fell to Samurai and bushi wives to clean and prepare the severed heads of enemies as presents for the victorious generals5.

These Samurai and bushi wives were required to carry kaiken (small daggers) at all times. These weapons were not typically used for defense, but were carried in case the need arose to perform jigai (ritual suicide which involved cutting their own throats open—hara-kiri being reserved for men). It was considered more honorable to perform jigai rather than be captured and become a victim of rape, which would bring dishonor to the family name5. In the rare instances when the kaiken was used in self-defense the woman would grasp the hilt with both hands, planting the butt of the hilt firmly against her stomach and rush forward, throwing all her bodyweight into the strike. If she had the element of surprise this maneuver would likely be fatal to her opponent5.

Bushi and Samurai wives were trained primarily in the use of the naginata for its versatility and usefulness in defending a castle from horsemen5. Women would typically be disadvantaged fighting against armed samurai at close quarters where men would have the advantage in weight and strength but the naginata allowed her to strike from a pole’s-length distance—a woman armed and trained to use a naginata could defeat all but the greatest of warriors5.

Though they were trained in martial arts, those wives that took to the battlefield were the exception—most women did not engage in combat4. But though traditionally perceived as delicate and feminine these women were far from powerless—they were pioneers, helping their clans to settle new territories. Some clans may have even been lead by women seeing as they had the legal right to act as jito (stewards) of the land5.

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Tomoe (c. 1185 C.E.)

Sometimes referred to as Tomoe-Gozen or Tomoe-san, she has become the archetypical Japanese warrior women, renowned for her courage, her skills at archery and horsemanship, as well as her great physical strength and beauty6,7,8,9.She is a woman of legend, said to be “a warrior worth a thousand men” who could tame wild horses and ride down perilous descents5. Tomoe was married to Minamoto Yoshinaka (1154-1184) a.k.a. Kiso, “the Demon Warrior” or “General of the Rising Sun” (though some sources, such as the Heike Monogatari describe Tomoe as his concubine) whom she fought alongside7,8,9. The legend says that before battle Kiso would send Tomoe out ahead of his own army dressed in strong armor and wielding an oversized sword and bow to soften them up for his men.

Kiso had driven the Taira clan from Kyoto and into the Western Provinces in 1184 after the Battle of Kurikawa, allowing the Minamoto clan to seize control of the Shōgunate7. Minamoto Yoritomo, after rising to power as Shōgun decided he needed to eliminate members of his own clan lest they become a threat to his rule or the succession of his line. At the time, Kiso was his greatest warrior (Yoshitsune had yet to win his reputation), and thus Yoritomo felt he was the greatest threat9. It did not help that after ousting the Taira, Kiso had insinuated that he should be the one leading the Minamoto, not Yoritomo whom he thought was going soft8,9. The fact that he was plotting to kidnap Emperor Go-Shirakawa and set up his own regime in the North did not help either3. Yoritomo declared Kiso—and those who followed him—enemies of the state and sent Yoshitsune and Noriyori along with an army of samurai to attack them3,9.

Kiso was vastly outnumbered. His army lost battle after battle, hounded by Yoritomo’s supporters until, by the time they had reached Otsu, only four people remained of Kiso’s army9. Tomoe and her brother Imai Kanehira were among the last of his followers7. During their last, desperate battle with the legions of Yoritomo’s supporters at Awazu, Kiso ordered Tomoe to leave—since it was obvious that they would all be dead in a matter of minutes—but she refused8,9. After entreating upon her again and again she finally agreed but her “retreat” was rather unorthodox: She spurred on her horse, charging right through a cavalry of thirty men, unhorsing Onda no Hachiro Moroshige (their leader and strongest warrior), pinning, and decapitating him. She took at least one head in her mad charge, which were to be parting gifts for Kiso5,8,9. Tomoe would not retreat of her own freewill9. Kiso knew he was not going to make it out alive so Tomoe and Kanehira attempted to hold off the armies while he committed hara-kiri, but an enemy’s arrow beat him to it5,7.

Some accounts say Tomoe was killed that day in 1184 with her husband and her brother while others suggest that she survived to become either a Buddhist nun or some kind of female entertainer by taking refuge in the Eastern provinces after the battle6,8,10. Yet another account says that she was kidnapped by Wada Yoshimori and had a son by him, Asahina—the strongest warrior of the Kamakura era5. Tomoe is kind of like a King Arthur-like figure in that there may or may not have been an actual historical person behind her5.

Hōjō Masako (1156-1225)

Also known as ama-shōgun “the general in nun’s habits” was the daughter of Hōjō Tokimasa and married to Minamoto Yoritomo, the first Minamoto shōgun8. History portrays Masako as a ruthless manipulator who was determined to destroy her husband’s family and succession line in favor of her own clan’s the Hōjō10.

Masako was responsible for saving the life of another strong-willed woman, Shizuka. Shizuka was the mistress of Yoshitsune (Yoritomo’s brother whom he turned on and ruthlessly hunted), and renowned for her beauty and talent as a singer. When Shizuka was captured, she was forced to perform for Yoritomo. In defiance, she sang a song of love and devotion to Yoshitsune. When Yoritomo would have killed or severely punished her, Masako intervened11.

After Minamoto’s death in 1199, the power of the Shōgunate passed to the Hōjō family through Masako and she ruled jointly with her father Tokimasa3. As was common for women in the samurai class, after her husband’s death, she became a Buddhist nun (hence her nickname). Masako was also a prominent politician—she and her father secured the power of the Hōjō clan in Kamakura. They formed the shukuro (“council of elders”) to put a check on the powers of Minamoto Yoriie, her son. Yoriie found this insulting and plotted with the Hiki clan to assassinate his grandfather. It is said Masako overheard her son’s plotting and warned her father, thus Tokimasa made the first move. In 1203 Tokimasa deprived the Hiki clan of leadership. Yoriie was exiled to the Izu Province and later assassinated. After neutralizing Yoriie, Masako’s eleven-year old son, Sanetomo was made shōgun8. Tokimasa declared himself shikken or director of the Mandokoro (the ultimate policy-making body during the Minamoto Shōgunate)3. He also declared himself regent and guardian of Sanetomo, removing him from Masako’s home. Masako retaliated in 1205 when she and her brother Yoshitoki revealed an alleged plot of Tokimasa’s to murder Sanetomo. With the support of the Hatakeyama clan, they forced Tokimasa into an early retirement. Masako continued to aid her brother when he was made regent. After Yoshitoki's death, Masako put down a conspiracy by the Iga family by bullying Miura Yoshimura into pledging fealty to the Hōjō clan allowing for the successful succession of her brother Yasutoki to the regency8.

Itagaki (c. 1201)

Itagaki (a.k.a. Hangaku, Hangaku-gozen, or Hangaku-san) grew up in Echigo province (in north central Honshu). She was the daughter of the Jo clan—a famous Bushi family. Itagaki was renowned for her archery skills. When the shōgunate attempted to suppress her nephew in 1201, the bushi of Echigo and Shinano provinces rebelled. Trapped in the besieged Tossaka castle with her nephew, she donned a man’s suit of armor and held back the enemy from the roof of a storehouse. She was wounded in both legs by arrows and spears, captured and brought before Shōgun Yoriie. Tales of her dignity and beauty drew the attentions of Lord Yoshito Asari of the Kai Genji family and they were married. The sources are ambiguous as to whether she wanted to marry him or if it was forced upon her. The accounts say that they lived in peace in Kai Koku (Yamanashi Prefecture in east central Honshu) until Itagaki was killed in battle. She led 3,000 soldiers in the defense of Torizakayama Castle—attempting to hold back an army of 10,0005.

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Mrs. Kotoku (c. 1534-1615)

Sometime during the Sengoku Jidai period, the wife of Kotoku Mimura, armed with a naginata, led eighty-three soldiers against Ura Hyobu’s army to exact vengeance for the mass suicides of her family within Mimura’s castle. Mrs. Kotoku challenged Ura, spinning her naginata before her. Ura was stunned at the effrontery of this woman who dared challenge him, and he refused to fight her because he believed that a women would prove no challenge to a true warrior. Mrs. Kotoku would not back down. While she cut down his bodyguards Ura, cowardly, turned tail and ran. But Mrs. Kotoku was able to cut her way through the lines and return to her castle5.

Miyagino and Shinobu (c. 1649) 

These two sisters were farmer’s daughters whose family suffered great poverty after the death of their father at the hands of the samurai Shiga Daishichi. Miyagino armed with a naginata and Shinobu with a kusarigama (a farmer’s sickle attached to a chain), tracked down their father’s killer, and found he had been captured by the local daimyo. When the daimyo brought his prisoner forward they set upon Shiga—the chain of the kusarigama binding Shiga’s katana while Miyagino struck the deathblow with her naginata, avenging their father’s death and family name10.

The End of the Samurai Women

A combination of Confucianist influences and the institutionalized sexism inherent in the practice of marrying daughters to cement political alliances caused a decline in the status of the female samurai12. But the role of women changed during the Tokugawa period when the ideal wife changed from one who was fearlessly devoted to one who was quiet, passive, and obedient as reflected by the new words for “wife” that arose in that era: kani and okasan which translate to “person living in the innermost part of the house”12. The wives of Samurai were now encouraged only to manage the home and children. Women were forbidden from traveling without permits and a male chaperone and Samurai women were frequently harassed by the authorities5. Today, the status of woman is improving again with women voters and a women’s movement. Women now walk side by side with men and do not carry all the packages where they were to trail two steps behind and haul everything just a generation earlier3. As for possible future women leaders, Princess Aiko is next in line for the succession to become the Empress of Japan13.

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1.Millar, David. Samurai Warriors. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. 71 pp.

2. Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2000. 67 pp.

3.Morton, Scott W., and J. Kenneth Olenik. Japan: Its History and Culture. 4th ed. San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 7-8 pp.

4.Auslin, Michael R., Beatrice Bodart-Bailey, Michael Cooper, Eiko Ikegami, Herbert Plutschow, Luke Roberts, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Harutoshi Takafuji, Makoto Takeuchi, and Hirofumi Yamamoto. “Samurai Woman.” Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire. PBS. Devillier Donegan Enterprises 2003. <>.

5. Amdur, Ellis. “Women Warriors of Japan: The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History.” The Classical Martial Arts Resource. ed. Diane Skoss. 2002. 6 May 2006. <>.

6. Brown, Steven T. “From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 58.1 (Jun 1998): 183-99 pp. 1 April 2006. <>.

7. Turnbull, S.R. The Samurai: A Military History. New York: MacMillan, 1977. Pp 65-6.

8.West, C.E., and F.W. Seal. “Famous Women of Japanese History.” Samurai Archives. History Channel. 2005. 4 May 2006. <>.

9.Wilhelmina, Nina. “Real-life Samurai Legends.” Azuchi Wind. 4 May 2006. 4 May 2006. <>.

10.Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warlords: The Book of the Daimyō. New York: Sterling, 1989.

11.Varley, Paul, Ivan and Nobuko Morris. The Samurai. London: Trinity, 1970.

12.“Female Samurai.” Kyuba no Michi: The Way of the Horse and Bow. 6 May 2006. <>.

13. McAvoy, Audrey. “Preparations For a Reining Empress: Japanese Princess in Line For Throne.” Royal Archive. AP. 21 Feb 2005. 8 May 2006. <>.

For Further Reading:

  • Gerstle, C. Andrew. “Heroic Honor: Chikamatsu and The Samurai Ideal.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 57.2 (Dec 1997): 307-81 pp. 1 April 2006. <>.
  • Hane, Mikiso, trans. Reflections On The Way To The Gallows. Los Angeles: University of California, 1993.
  • Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. Japanese Women: Constraint and Fulfillment. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1984.
  • Mackie, Vera. Feminism In Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.
  • Yamakawa, Kikue. Women of the Mito Domain. Trans. Kate Wildman Nakai. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.


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