Onna-bugeisha – the female samurai

12347581_194834794191944_7224734052000204473_nSome of the most mighty and fearsome Japanese warriors were the Onna-bugeisha. Their family backgrounds differ from noblewomen to peasant farmers. They were members of the bushi (samurai) class in feudal Japan and were trained in the use of weapons to protect their household, family, and honor in times of war. An eight century span produced some of the most famous female warriors, Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Hōjō Masako, just to name a few. The naginata was their signature weapon of choice.

Around the 12th century Japanese women were responsible for raising their children with the proper samurai upbringing, they were also allowed rights to inheritance and to bequeath property. They controlled the household finances, and managed the staff. Women were also expected to defend their homes in times of war. Many women engaged in battle, commonly alongside samurai men. Women learned to use naginata, kaiken, and the art of tantojutsu in battle.

Mainly from the influence of Neo-Confucian philosophy and the established marriage market of the Edo Period (1600–1868), the status of the onna-bugeisha diminished significantly. Samurai were no longer concerned with battles and war, they became bureaucrats. Women, specifically daughters of most upper class households, were soon just simply more valuable as political pawns (mostly for marriage purposes). Travel during this time was also difficult for many female samurai. They always had to be accompanied by a man, since they were not allowed to travel by themselves. They also had to possess specific permits, establishing their business and motives. Many samurai viewed women purely as child bearers; the concept of a woman being a fit companion for war was no longer conceivable.

Male samuaris had the katana, the female samurais had the naginata, which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip. The weapon is mainly favoured for its length, which can compensate for the strength and body size advantage of male opponents. Moreover, the naginata has a niche right between the katana and the yari, which is rather effective in close quarter melee when the opponent is kept at bay, and is also relatively efficient against cavalry. They also used ranged weaponry such as bows and arrows.