Onna-Bugeisha: The Female Samurai Warriors of Feudal Japan

Onna-Bugeisha: The Female Samurai Warriors of Feudal Japan

Onna-bugeisha were female warriors who existed during the feudal period in Japan. The term "onna-bugeisha" translates to "female martial artist" or "female martial warrior." These women were trained in the art of combat and actively participated in battles alongside male samurais.

Onna-bugeisha were not merely wives or daughters of samurais; they were skilled fighters in their own right. They possessed a deep sense of loyalty, dedication, and bravery, which allowed them to overcome societal expectations and take up arms on the battlefield. These women played a significant role in defending their clans, homes, and honor.

Origins of Onna-bugeisha

Tomoe Gozen

The origins of onna-bugeisha can be traced back to the early periods of feudal Japan. The emergence of these female warriors was influenced by various historical factors and cultural developments.During ancient times, Japan was primarily an agricultural society where men typically engaged in farming activities while women took care of domestic affairs. However, as the country experienced periods of political instability, clan warfare became prevalent, and the need for skilled warriors arose.

In this context, the samurai class began to develop, consisting of professional warriors who served feudal lords. Initially, samurais were exclusively men, but as the demand for skilled fighters grew, women started to train alongside their male counterparts.The earliest recorded instance of onna-bugeisha dates back to the 4th century. Empress Jingu, a legendary figure in Japanese history, is believed to have led a successful military expedition during her reign. Her accomplishments inspired future generations and set a precedent for women's participation in warfare.

As Japan entered the medieval period, known as the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the samurai class gained even more prominence. This era witnessed frequent internal conflicts, leading to the rise of regional warlords known as daimyos. These daimyos required skilled warriors to protect their territories, and thus the training of onna-bugeisha gained greater recognition.

The Sengoku period (1467-1603) marked a significant turning point for onna-bugeisha. This era was characterized by widespread warfare and political instability. As clans fought for power, women became actively involved in defending their families and homes. Some notable onna-bugeisha, such as Tomoe Gozen and Nakano Takeko, gained fame during this tumultuous period.

Empress Jingu

Training of Onna-bugeisha

Onna-bugeisha underwent rigorous training to develop their physical and mental abilities, preparing them for the challenges of warfare. Their training encompassed various aspects, including physical conditioning, martial arts techniques, and weapon proficiency.

Physical training was a fundamental component of onna-bugeisha's preparation. They engaged in exercises and activities that aimed to enhance their strength, agility, and endurance. These exercises included running, strength training, and practicing martial arts forms. By building their physical capabilities, onna-bugeisha were able to wield weapons effectively and endure the physical demands of battle.

Mental training was equally important for onna-bugeisha. They cultivated discipline, focus, and resilience through meditation and mental exercises. Mental fortitude was crucial in the face of adversity and allowed them to make quick decisions during intense combat situations. They were trained to maintain composure and stay calm even amidst chaos.

Martial arts formed a significant part of onna-bugeisha's training. They studied various combat techniques, such as striking, grappling, and defensive maneuvers. These techniques encompassed both armed and unarmed combat, providing them with versatility in battle. Onna-bugeisha practiced martial arts forms diligently, refining their movements and honing their skills.

Weapon proficiency was a key aspect of onna-bugeisha's training. They specialized in particular weapons, with the naginata being one of the most iconic and commonly associated with them. The naginata is a polearm with a curved blade, offering reach and versatility in combat. Onna-bugeisha also trained in other weapons like the yari (spear), kaiken (dagger), and sometimes even archery. They learned the intricacies of handling these weapons, focusing on both offensive and defensive techniques.

Training for onna-bugeisha was often conducted under the guidance of experienced instructors or within the confines of their own clans. The training regimen varied, but it typically involved rigorous and repetitive practice to build muscle memory, refine techniques, and develop a deep understanding of combat principles.

Female Samurai Training

Onna-bugeisha in battles

Onna-bugeisha played significant roles in various battles throughout feudal Japan. Their skills and bravery on the battlefield allowed them to actively contribute to the defense of their clans and territories. Here are a few notable battles where onna-bugeisha were involved:
  1. Battle of Awazu (1184): During the Gempei War, Tomoe Gozen, a renowned onna-bugeisha, fought alongside Minamoto no Yoshinaka. In the Battle of Awazu, Tomoe Gozen displayed exceptional valor and combat skills. She led a charge against the enemy forces, capturing enemy generals and contributing to a decisive victory.
  2. Battle of Aizu (1868): In the Boshin War, the Battle of Aizu witnessed the involvement of onna-bugeisha from the Aizu domain. The women of the Aizu domain, known as the Byakkotai, fought alongside their male counterparts to defend the Tsuruga Castle. Despite their young age, they displayed unwavering determination and fought bravely. Many lost their lives during the battle.
  3. Siege of Oshi Castle (1590): The Siege of Oshi Castle is another notable battle where onna-bugeisha made a significant impact. Nohime, the wife of daimyo Oda Nobunaga, actively participated in the defense of Oshi Castle. She commanded a group of female warriors and fought fiercely against the enemy forces. Despite their valiant efforts, the castle eventually fell.
  4. Battle of Aizu Wakamatsu (1868): During the Boshin War, the Battle of Aizu Wakamatsu witnessed the involvement of onna-bugeisha from the Aizu domain once again. These women warriors fought alongside male samurais in the defense of the Aizu domain against the imperial forces. Their courage and skills in combat were widely acknowledged.
  5. Battle of Nagashino (1575): While not exclusively consisting of onna-bugeisha, the Battle of Nagashino saw the participation of female warriors from the Takeda clan. These women warriors fought alongside their male counterparts and played a crucial role in the initial stages of the battle. Their efforts helped the Takeda forces gain an advantage, although they eventually faced defeat.

In these battles, onna-bugeisha showcased their combat prowess, leadership abilities, and unwavering dedication to their clans. They fought on the front lines, utilizing their martial skills, strategic thinking, and exceptional bravery. Their presence in these battles challenged traditional gender roles and exemplified the significant contributions that women could make on the battlefield.

Society, culture and legacy of Onna-bugeisha

Japanese Female With Child

The perception of onna-bugeisha in feudal Japanese society was complex and multifaceted. On one hand, they were respected for their martial abilities and admired for their courage and dedication. On the other hand, they were still bound by the prevailing gender norms and societal expectations of the time.

While onna-bugeisha were highly regarded for their skills and contributions, they often existed within a framework that limited their role primarily to the battlefield. Their valor and martial prowess were acknowledged, but they were still expected to conform to certain societal norms.

In the eyes of their clans and fellow warriors, onna-bugeisha were seen as symbols of strength and determination. Their presence on the battlefield demonstrated their commitment to protecting their families, homes, and honor. They were respected for their unwavering loyalty and bravery in the face of adversity.

However, it is important to note that onna-bugeisha were still the exception rather than the norm in feudal Japan. The majority of women in society were expected to fulfill traditional gender roles, which typically involved domestic duties and supporting their families behind the scenes.

Despite these limitations, onna-bugeisha had a significant impact within their communities. Their martial skills allowed them to actively contribute to the defense of their clans and territories. They served as role models for other women and inspired future generations to challenge societal expectations.

Onna-bugeisha often played additional roles in their communities beyond the battlefield. They were expected to embody virtues such as loyalty, discipline, and honor, serving as examples of ideal samurai ethics. They were also responsible for transmitting cultural values and traditions to the next generation, ensuring the preservation of their clan's heritage.

The presence of onna-bugeisha in society challenged conventional notions of gender roles and provided examples of women who defied societal expectations. While their participation in warfare was often driven by specific circumstances, their existence pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible for women in feudal Japan.

Overall, onna-bugeisha occupied a unique space in society. They were admired for their martial abilities and respected for their contributions to their clans and communities. Their presence offered a glimpse into a different narrative, where women could actively engage in traditionally male-dominated spheres and leave a lasting impact on Japanese history and culture.


Were Onna-bugeisha common in feudal Japan?

No, Onna-bugeisha were relatively rare and only a small percentage of women were trained as warriors.

What weapons did Onna-bugeisha use?

Onna-bugeisha used a variety of weapons including the naginata (a long polearm), the yari (a spear), and the kaiken (a small dagger).

How were Onna-bugeisha perceived by male samurais?

There is no one answer to this question, as opinions varied depending on the individual samurai. Some male samurais respected Onna-bugeisha as skilled warriors, while others viewed them as a threat to traditional gender roles.

Did Onna-bugeisha participate in seppuku (ritual suicide)?

There are recorded instances of Onna-bugeisha participating in seppuku, but it was not a common practice among female warriors.

Are there any famous Onna-bugeisha in modern media?

Yes, there are several famous Onna-bugeisha characters in movies, anime, and video games, including Tomoe Gozen, Yae Sakura, and Kagerou.