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Samurai Warriors: Not Exclusively Male

Have you ever heard of female samurai warriors? Recent archaeological findings indicate that samurai women may have been more deeply involved in battle than we previously thought! These women are known as the Onna-Bugeisha, female warriors who belong to Japanese nobility.

These women were members of the samurai, or bushi, class in feudal Japan. They were trained in the use of various weapons in order to protect their families, households, and honor during times of war. (This sounds like a favorite Disney classic, right? Although, Mulan was Chinese.)

According to Military History Monthly, recent excavations of three battlefield burial grounds, such as the 1580 Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao, revealed through DNA testing that 35 out of 105 buried warriors were women. Similar results were yielded at two other excavation sites.

It is notable to mention that none of these burial sites included a siege situation, so it is only likely that the women found were participants in battle. Clearly, their involvements were rarely recorded.

Of the documented instances of women in war, one noteworthy instance occurs at the defense of Suemori castle in 1584 – by the commander’s wife.

Jumping from Japanese to Chinese culture for a quick history lesson, Hua Mulan – star in the Disney film Mulan – is a legendary woman warrior from the Southern and Northern Dynasties period of Chinese history. She was originally described in a ballad, known as the Ballad of Mulan.

In the ballad, Hua Mulan takes her aged father’s place in the army. She was a beautiful woman, known for her strength and practiced martial arts skills. She was also regarded for her talents with the sword. Mulan fought for 12 years and gained high merit, but she refused any reward and retired to her hometown instead. To quote the Emperor from the Disney animation, “you don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.”

Japanese fighters, including the Onna-Bugeisha, were well-trained in wielding swords and spears. One legendary fighter recorded in history is Empress Jingü, who used her skill to inspire social and economic change. She was noted to be one of the Onna-Bugeisha who led a Korean invasion in 200 AD, after her husband Emperor Chūai, the 14th emperor of Japan, was killed in battle.

According to legend, Jingü led a Japanese conquest of Korea without shedding a drop of blood. Despite controversies surrounding her existence and her accomplishments, she was a prime example of the Onna-Bugeisha in its entirety. Years after her death, Jingū was able to eclipse the socioeconomic structures that were instilled in Japan. In 1881, Jingū became the first woman to be featured on a Japanese banknote.

Jingü is one of several Onna-Bugeishas whose influence was recorded into history, but there are presumably countless others who were not allowed such permanence. Here’s to celebrating all of them, and to recognizing that samurai warrior women had an important role in writing the stories of their nations. 

Featured Image by Aditya Rakhman on Flickr
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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