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Friday, January 9, 2015

The Female Samurai

My friend Michael Power recently sent me the photograph above of a Japanese woman in samurai garb.

My initial instinct was to quickly dismiss it as one of those typical photographs of someone merely dressing up in costume… but then I got curious.

If this is indeed a Japanese woman, she would surely know and respect the samurai heritage that was legislated out of its status back in 1873, and thus would NOT have dressed up as one of the former elite warrior class for a lark - even for a photograph.

Excluding perhaps the 21st century, the woman in Japan maintained - with exceptions - the decorum expected of a woman in Japan, that is to say 'keep quiet, sit in the background, and get me a sammich.'

Poor spelling of sandwich aside, women were and to a large extent still considered to be the demure servant of the men.

Having been raised by strong woman in Canada, I quietly went about doing my gaijin 'sh!t disturbing' amongst the sexes: describing how women in Canada - while not always getting paid the same as their male counterparts, are at least supposed to; serving tea beside the women or getting a cup for a woman; discussing manners in the West that are not followed in Japan (which could smack of reverse sexism, if we think about it), and so on…

While I knew that the Japanese woman did not enjoy the same equality with the Japanese men as even I, a foreign man, seemed to, I was aware that in Japan's long history, there were women who had led the country.

One of the first books on Japan that I read was a three-part encyclopedia on the history of Japan. Within the dull brown pages with tiny type, I noted that the Japanese had employed a woman as the leader of its country… so if that could happen (much like Great Britain's Elizabeth's, and the Egyptians female Pharaohs), then it would also imply that the warriors would have to obey the commands of a woman.

A Japanese female leader - but could I be harboring chauvinistic tendencies and not believe a woman of the past could dare be a full-blooded warrior?

Chalk it up to naivety rather than any prejudice, though, for I looked and Japan does indeed have a female warrior - the onna-musha (女武者). You'll notice I didn't say 'samurai' warrior.

Despite having their own term, the warrior women of Japan were extremely uncommon.

Like the samurai themselves, the onna-musha were part of the Japanese upper class. They were well-trained in various weaponry, but were the wives, widows, daughters—not merely tomboys.

They would fight alongside the male samurai, but generally-speaking, they were stay at home fighters who would help protect the household—and honor—during times of war. It was not expected to be a full-time job.

According to various websites, the more famous of the Japanese warrior wonder women are (surname first): Empress Consort Jingū (神功皇后 Jingū-kōgō, 201 - 269AD, traditional; Hōjō Masako (北条 政子, 1156 – August 16, 1225AD); Tomoe Gozen (巴 御前, 1157?–1247AD); and the very interesting Nakano Takeko (中野 竹子, 1847 - 1868AD).

But before we get all excited, let's take a closer look at their accomplishments to see if they are indeed deserving of being called a female samurai.

1) Empress Consort Jingū - She is considered to be a legendary figure because there is no evidence to support, well, anything. In other words, you take things here with a large grain of salt.
Up until the Meiji (1868AD) period, Jingū was considered to have been the 15th Japanese imperial ruler, according to the traditional order of succession (hence her alternate title Jingū tennō 神功天皇); but a re-evaluation of the extant historical records caused her name to be removed from that list; and her son, Emperor Ōjin, is now considered to have been the 15th sovereign.
So she is basically stricken from the history books - another female leader bites the dust. Even though one might think that the Japanese really must not think that a woman can lead, but note that it does recognize some eight women as the de facto Empress and leader. Just not Empress Consort Jingū.
While the subject of many a samurai drama on television, Empress Consort Jingū has also been the subject of many artistic depictions such as ukiyo-e and even a banknote.
A 1 yen banknote representing Empress Jingū, 1881.

2) Hōjō Masako - from what I can tell, Hōjō did indeed receive some hunting and horseback riding training... and did eat with the men rather than the women... according to the stories of her time in the 12th century - all her accomplishments listed above are very 'unladylike'.
She was the sister of Hōjō Yoshitoki, and was married to Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first Shogun of the Kamakura period. As well, she was the mother to not one, but two men who became Shogun (the second and third Shogun) ... but there is no evidence to support that she actually took up arms against a sea of troubles and thus by opposing, ended them. That is to say, she doesn't appear to have actually done any actual for real fighting as a samurai, though she might have received some training. While her first son was Shogun, and her husband dead, she shaved her head and entered into what was said to be the Japanese version of a 'nunnery'... and is thus known as the ama-shogun, or the "nun-shogun."
Hōjō Masako by Kikuchi Yōsai (菊池 容斎).

3) Tomoe Gozen - we might have something here. Tomoe might actually have been an honest to gosh warrior. I said might.
Of course there are probably many times in Japan's long history when a woman picked up a weapon of some sort and gutted a male warrior in either defense of her honor, or to protect herself or a family member, I'm discovering that there are not as many true warriors of the Japanese female persuasion as I was originally led to think. Damn Internet obfuscation.
Married to a headstrong dude name Kiso (Minamoto) Yoshinaka, who dared to challenge for leadership of the Minamoto clan. While her husband did fight a plethora of armed fighters who decided to nip his rebellion in the bud, apparently Tomoe managed to kill one person and take his head as a trophy (the way this blog is going, that headless guy probably tripped on a rock and impaled himself, allowing easy pickings for Tomoe).
According to a prose-filled description of the wars between the Minamoto and the Taira clans during the Genpei War (1180-1185)--The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike Monogatari), Tomoe is described thusly:
"…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 over-sized sword, and a might bow; and she preformed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors."
(Tale of the Heike, McCullough, pg. 291)

Uh, yeah. Ready to confront a demon or a god. It is possible that this was actually meant to be fact, such is the prose, but it does state that she was full of piss and vinegar and was brave.
White skin - or rather the lighter the skin in Japan, the more prized it is - even today - as it implies one must be of high standing to afford to sit in the shade and not have to labor. So... the story implies that Tomoe was a warrior - she would have to do lots of training... she would have some sun on that skin of hers.
Then again... not much is ultimately known of her fate. Tomoe might have died in that same battle I mentioned above (Battle of Awazu), or she might have done as suggested and actually beheaded an attacker and then fled to the east, or, she survived and became a nun. Again with nuns. An honorable profession (Catholic School nuns used to smack me on the knuckles to stop me from talking in class - I still have lousy penmenship because if it), but it seems like too handy a plot device.
Tomoe... is she a samurai warrior? She may or may not have killed one man... according to a 900-year-old document, written by someone who probably heard of these war stories second- or third-hand account and then wove them to make them seem more fantastic. All writers are liars - I'm not, though. Unless I am. Having admitted I am, I must not be. Ah, to be or not to be... that is the question. The same with Tomoe and her alleged exploits.
Tomoe Gozen -- artist's impression by Kikuchi Yōsai (1781-1878).
I don't even know what to say about the whole warrior woman thing in Japan. I can certainly believe that some women would have learned some fighting skills and been able to hunt and ride a horse. But I tend not to believe those old 12th century tales.

Now... during Edo-jidai... between 1603-1868... when Japan was essentially cloistered, shut off from the rest of the world with a couple of trade partners with whom it did small business... now here... here I could see a woman becoming, if not a true samurai warrior, then at least a warrior and perhaps actually getting into real armed conflict with the enemy.

4) Nakano Takeko - who as mentioned above lived between 1847 - 1868AD... which if you do the math, suggests she was maybe 21-years-old when she died. So, if she was a real samurai warrior, then she may not have been a particularly good one.
But maybe I'm wrong. Let's find out!
Nakano was the daughter of an Aizu clan official... which means dear old dad wasn't a samurai. But, with his high-class job, Nakano apparently received training in the martial and literary arts. Hey! Me, too. Anyhow, at some point in time, she was adopted by her teacher Akaoka Daisuke (surname first), eventually learning enough to work alongside him as a martial arts instructor during her teenaged years.
Now... During the Battle of Aizu in 1868, she became involved. She fought with a naginata (polearm - long pole with a blade on the end), and was apparently the leader of a bunch of female fighters - who were not officially a part of the Aizu clan warriors, but kind of did their part anyway.
As far as I can tell, there is no official name for this female troop, except, however, that retroactive history has called it the Jōshitai (娘子隊) or Women's Army, because it is the least imaginative name they could come up with, as I assume "Chicks With Sticks" was already taken by some semi-pro CosPlay group.
Remember that I said that during the Edo period Japan had been mostly closed off? Well, they did manage to get firearms in during that time... rifles that diminish the whole romantic feel of warfare.
Late 1800s photograph of samurai and retainers wearing armor and holding naginata.
So... leading a charge of her fellow female warriors, she was shot by the Imperial Japanese Army (who were trying to stop samurai from being samurai - to stop the whole Shogun warrior-thing and bring back the Emperor as the supreme and absolute leader, honest to god).
So shot... and believing she was going to die, she asked her sister to cut off her head and to take it and have it buried somewhere. Apparently, it was still the ideal to cut off the head of one's enemy and to keep it as a trophy. Really.
And being the good sister, Yūko cut off Nakano's head and took it to Hōkai-ji Temple (in modern-day Aizubange in Fukushima-ken, and buried the head under a pine tree where there is a monument for her to this day.
In fact, there is an annual Aizu Atumn Festival (I think it's September 22-23, 2015) when young girls will dress in hakama (old style Japanese clothing) and place a white headband over their forehead and commemorate Nakano and her band of merry women fighters. The festival is held at Tsuruga-jo castle - a nice castle I once visited.

NOT in warrior garb, we see Nakano Takeko. Is this a photograph or a drawing??!!
As for the photograph of the woman in the samurai garb in the photo at the very top... perhaps she was a member of Nakano's troop... or perhaps she was a member of another fighting group. Who knows?

Were there real female samurai as so many websites and documents claim? No. I am unlikely to believe in an epic poem, or the stories told from the 12th century that lack any solid evidence whatsoever. And neither should you.

Even Nakano-chan... look, the samurai, who followed Bushido (the way of the warrior and its code of ethics et al), was a sausage festival... that is to say, it was a male-only club.

My wife suggested that since there are instances where women have disguised themselves as their male counterparts to find equal employment and whatever, that perhaps it is also possible for a woman to have become a samurai that way. The only examples I can come up with are from made-up stories, but perhaps it has happened more than I realize.

But... you have to be born into the class, or at least earn it through distinction... someone - a man - would have to sponsor you and train you. You'll notice that Nakano did not have her own katana swords, but used a different type of weapon.

I'm not saying a woman couldn't do these things, of course, but I am suggesting that 150 years ago - and earlier - in Japan, this is highly unlikely. I am willing to be proven incorrect, so if someone knows otherwise, please let me know. The key word is 'proven'.

Andrew Joseph

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