Women have always had a fundamental role in Japan, beginning from its legendary founder, the goddes Amaterasu. Many were the empresses, among which some notable she-warriors such as empress Jingu (3rd century a.d.) who invaded Korea. Historical reports also refer of powerful pristesses. Only after China’s cultural inflluence upon Japan, women started losing their importance and by the 13th century they had become a social entity under the rule of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. Nonetheless, Japanese women have been able to preserve through the centuries something of their original independence, to the extent of writing the first novel of world literature’s history, the Genji Monogatari, or fighting side by side with their samurai.
According to some historical sources, samurai’s women were not handsome, nor elegant or educated; surely they cared for their look, hence they painted their lips red, shaved their eyebrows, whitened their skin with rice powder, painted their teeth black, took care for their long hair. They typically spent their days in loneliness, for their husbands were almost always engaged in far away battles. Their homes were often attacked by enemies. Ancient chronicles report of women fighting with bow or halber to defend their properties. Some followed their husbands on the battlefield to demonstrate their devotion. Love was an important feeling for aristocrats, which were polygamous anyway; for the monogamous samurai, love for a woman was more in the form of respect than passion. Before marrying, women could have their experiences with several men, but after marriage fidelity was mandatory and betrayal was punished with repudiation and divorce. Marriages occured at an earlier age so that children may have young parents. Love may have been a personal, individual matter, but marriage was always a family business, therefore parental consent was fundamental for the samurai. In fact, many used marriage for political purposes, especially to obtain alliances. This habit allowed men to consolidate their power and diminished women’s importance at the same time. The wedding ritual was simple, consisting in the marrying couple to exchange three sake cups to be drunk in three sips (sansankudo). The marriage was sanctioned only after the birth of the first child. It could be dissolved after consent of the married couple or after repudiation of the wife who was sent back to her father’s house, while children stayed with the husband. The wife of a samurai was allowed to take refuge in a temple where she stayed for three years; after that she was considered divorced. The husband was allowed to beat his wife but always softly. If she was hurt or wounded he could risk severe punishment.
The life of aristocrats was extremely boring, but samurai’s women had a certain importance because they took care of their homes, of children’s education and of their men.
But samurai’s primary feeling was loyalty to their lord; love for wife and children came after that.
Childbirth was a natural fact that happend in a room with a white tatami in its center. The woman never screamed during labour and was assisted by servants, while a priest or a warrior made bowstrings vibrate in order to keep evil spirits away. The newborn was wrapped up in a white cloth and the umbilical cord was cut with a bamboo knife.
A willow branch was placed outside the room to indicate it was off limits. Mother and servants were considered impure. The newborn received its first purifying bath only after some days had passed. In the water they put some jewelry for prosperity and some images of a tiger for health. It was said that the spirit of the child was not stable in the body for 30 days, so the mother could took the child out only after the 31st day to go to the shinto temple. Meanwhile, the father, after purifying himself, offered a simple meal to friends. The age of the child was calculated in a particular way: at birth the child was already one year old because the gestation perdiod was also included. Another year was assigned right after birth, so the child was 2 year old by the end of the first year.
Although obscured by the men’s prestige, the samurai woman did exist. If a woman was born in a samurai family, she became samurai in turn, so wives and daughters of samurai were all samurai. They were part of the same social group but, naturally, they had different duties. The samurai’s wife, or okusan (“the one who stays at home”), had to take care of domestic duties and children education first. The traditional values meant to inspire the samurai woman’s spirit were humbleness, dutifulness, and discipline. Their social status was clearly subordinate to men. Their social class, often forgotten, was known as “onna bugeisha” or “samurai women” and was represented by a small fraction of the highest social classes of Japan.
Many wives, widows, daughters, and rebels aswered the battle calls, often side by side with samurai. As members of the bushi (warrior) class of feudal Japan, they were all trained to the use of weapons to protect their homes, families, and honour at war times. At the same time they were strikingly different from the traditional housewife image, typical of Japanese women. The word onna, meaning woman, paired with the male derivative bugeisha (she-warrior), created an often debated mixture.
Samurai women received the same family education as men, for what concerned discipline and self-control, uses and customs of society, and confucian principles. She was prepared to martial arts with typically feminine weapons such as the naginata (a staff with a curved blade), which became the symbol weapon of samurai women, as the katana was for men.
The naginata, a long blade attached to a wooden staff, was born as the Yamabushi’s weapon, the warrior monks. In 1600 Japan was pacified and it became the weapon of the samurai’s wife. All aristocratic girls had to bring a naginata as a dawry to their grooms and had to demonstrate their ability to use it. In fact, husbands were often away and women had to be able to protect the family from malicious persons. At this purpose they were specifically trained to multiple (and bigger) opponents combat, as in the case of a woman attacked by a group of bandits. Their martial techniques involved knives hidden in their hair as clips and the use of a particular fan (tessen), a proper weapon also used by samurai men. Another typically feminine weapon was the tanto, a short knife hidden in the wide kimono sleeves. They were also trained in archery and introduced to the art of arranging flowers (ikebana) and to tea cerimony (chanoyu).
However, women definitely had a secondary role in Japanese civilization; the fact they were allowed to study of martial arts proves how the spirit of bushido was deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
In Japan’s history there were powerful warrior women like Masako, widow of Minamoto Yoritomo, known as the “Shogun nun” (13th century). They were bound to giri, the worriors duty towards their lord, and the acceptation of death. Often they replaced the deceased or unable husbands in combat. The ritual suicide (seppuku) was also practiced by women, mainly remembered as example of loyalty to the husband. Some stories tell of women who committed suicide before the samurai went to battle so he could face death freely, with no emotional ties of any kind. While self-disembowelment (hara kiri) was required for samurai men, women were allowed to slit their throat.
The onna bugeisha were prominent figures in ancient Japan. Very important historical ikons like the already mentioned Princess Jingu, Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeo, and Hojo Masako were all onna bugeisha who wrote Japan’s history and modelled it in what the country has become today.
Long before the rise of the highly respected caste of the samurai, Japanese warriors were well trained to sword and lance combat. Women had to learn to use naginata, tanto, and kaiken (a shorter knife than tanto) in battle bacause of the shortage of male warriors in some communities.
Princess Jingu (side – circa 169-269 b.c.) used her skills to inspire social and economical changes of the period. Legend has it that she led the invasion of Korea in 200 b.c. after her husband Chuai, 14th emperor of Japan, was killed in battle. She miraculously guided Japan’s conquer of Korea without shedding a drop of blood. Although her successes and mere existance are debated, Princess Jingu is an example of onna bugeisha as a whole.
Years after her death, Jingu was able to trascend the economical and social structure of Japan: in 1881 she became the first woman to be represented on Japanese banknotes, purposedly designed to avoid falsification, and her image was printed on rectangular paper.
During Heian and Kamakura periods, women who excelled in the battlefield were the exception, not the rule. Because of the Japanese idea of woman, they were to be considered powerless entities. Typical examples are the ladies of the imperial court who spent their lives writing poetry and observing the Moon. An image of this kind is in stark contrast with the she-warriors, but in spite of that, women were the key to exploring new social territories. Some of them were able to lead their clan. In 1968, during the battle of Aizu (in the Boshin war), Nakano Takeko, of the Aizu clan, the one who preserved the secrets of Aikijutsu, was at the head of the female army that assaulted 20000 soldiers of Japan’s imperial army in the Ogaki territory. Highly trained with naginata, Takeko and her division, made of about 20 women, joined the battle with additional 3000 Aizu samurai. A monument was dedicated to her in the Hokai temple of Aizu Bengemachi, in the Fukushima province.
In the Kamakura period, the Genpei war (1180 – 1185) was fought between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans, among the most prominent ones in the late Heian period. The Heike Monogatari epic tells of the battles between the Heike/Taira and Minamoto/Genji clans, depicting many stories of devoted and corageous samurai. Among them was Tomoe Gozen (side), wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka of the Minamoto (or Genji) clan. Gozen helped her husband against his cousin’s Minamoto no Yoritomo attacks. During the battle of Awazu, on February 21, 1184, Gozen led the troups against the enemy forces, plunged herself on the strongest of the enemy warriors, unsaddled him, killed him, and finally beheaded him. In the Heike Monogatari, Gozen is described as “extremely beautyful, fair skin, long hair, and delicate posture. She was a notable archer and with the sword matched a thousend warriors, ready to face a demon or a god, on foot or riding. She rode wild horses with great expertise and could ran fast down impervious slopes. When the battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her as first commander, equipped with a heavy armour, a bigger than normal sword, and a powerful bow: and Gozen plunged forward with more courage than any other soldier.”
Although there is no proof of her historical existence, Gozen had a huge impact on the warrior class, including many traditional naginata schools. Her battle actions received great attention in both literature (Tomoe no Monogatari) and painting (ukiyo paints). With time, the influence of onna bugeisha switched from painting to politics.
After the Heike clan (also known as Taira) was pushed towards the western provinces, the Kamakura bakufu (shogunate, 1185-1333) was established under the guidance of Minamoto no Yoritomo. After his death, his wife Hojo Masako was the first onna bugeisha to hold important political roles during the first years of the Hojo reign. Masako became a Buddhist nun, according to the typical custom of Samurai widows, and was known as “the General dressed as a nun”. She influenced the Samurai class to support her son Minamoto no Yoriie as first Hojo ruler (Hojo Shikken, at Kamakura).
With the joined effort of Masako and some manipulated politicians, the laws that ruled the court at the beginning of the 13th century granted women the same rights of men. Those laws also allowed women to administer finance, property, attend the household, and manage servants, beside growing their children according to tradition and samurai honour. Most importantly, Japanese women were able to, and had to, defend their homes in times of war.