Anya Wassenberg
August 19, 2013

4 Real-Life Female Samurai Who Could’ve Kicked Your Butt

Hangaku Gozen

via Wikimedia Commons

Anime and manga feature many memorable female warriors like Makie Otono from Tachibana and Oyuki of Lady Snowblood. You might think these female warriors represent a bold new trend, but they’re based on a very real history.

During times of war while Japanese men fought on distant battlefields, women were expected to defend their property to the death. And so the Onna-bugeisha, or Female Samurai, were born.

Certain women in the upper or samurai classes began to develop martial arts skills. They learned to wield a sword, a naginata (a blade on a long wooden staff) and a dagger called the kaiken. The best among them took their places on the battlefield alongside the men. Here are four of those women:

1. Empress Jingu

The legendary Empress Jingu (c. 169 to 269 C.E.) reigned as regent for her young son after his death in 201 C.E. She led her country’s army in a successful invasion of Korea, and legend has it she pulled it off without shedding a drop of blood.

2. Tomoe Gozen

Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors. (from the Heike Monogatari)

There’s some debate among scholars as to whether Tomoe Gozen, one of the heroines of the Heike Monogatari or The Tale of the Heike, actually existed as a historical figure. If she was real, she lived during the late 12th century and fought in the Genpei War that’s depicted in the epic story. She was known for both her bravery and her extraordinary beauty. She was also the concubine of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, the first shogun.

3. Lady Hangaku

Lady Hangaku was another female fighter in the Genpei war – but on the losing side. During the subsequent Kennin Uprising in 1201 she led a battalion of 3,000 against an enemy force of more than 10,000. Wounded by an archer during the battle, she was captured and taken prisoner. There, her beauty saved her life when one of the enemy soldiers fell in love with her and married her.

4. Nakana Takeko

Nakana Takeko was another real life Onna-bugeisha. Born in 1847, she died when she was just 21 years old, killed in battle during the Boshin War. Her father was a government official and she was eventually adopted by her martial arts trainer. She led a contingent of women into battle and was renowned as a skilled practitioner of the naginata.

Today, the battle skills these four amazing women practiced and developed live on in the Atarashii Naginata form of martial arts.