Analysis Culture

The rise of the Japanese Onna-bugeisha

Anyone in the industrial world will tell you: the Japanese have some pretty weird gender issues. From dudes who can’t even make their own sandwich, to women who have to wear [awesome] uniforms just to work in an office. Dudes don’t have to do that. I mean, they have their usual black suit, white shirt, black tie get-up… but it ain’t anything like the shit they make the ladies wear.

The world somewhat recently became keenly aware of the “fact” that Japanese folks were becoming asexual. (I say “fact” because it couldn’t be further from the truth. But that doesn’t stop any media outlet in the West from telling you so.) But history — even recent history — gives us a very different foundation upon which we may build our perceptions regarding gender equality in Japan… Set the Way Way Back Machine to Ancient Japan.

From the earliest records, the women of Yamato (early Japan) were involved in nearly all aspects of Japanese warriorship. Long before the establishment of the Warrior Class (which we all now know unanimously as Samurai), women learned and used not only weapons such as the naginata, the yari (spear), and various knives and short blades (like the kaiken), but also many forms of hand-to-hand combat.

Not only were there female warriors, there were also priestesses and rulers. Intimately involved in combat, religion, and rulership, the women of historical Japan have rarely ever specifically suffered any inferiority to their male counterparts. Examples of these women, and their epics, highlight the Common Era like war stories in a VFW.

The Sun God*dess* Amaterasu is the supreme deity of the Japanese Shinto pantheon. The red sun on the Japanese flag represents *her*. The Imperial Line of Succession in Japan is mythologically descended from *her*. The deities Izanami and Izanagi — male and female, respectively — were also of primary importance in Japanese religion, and were both equal in stature, power, and combative prowess.

The nearly mythological Empress Jingu is said to have led the 200 AD conquest of Korea “without shedding a drop of blood.” (This example would hold perfectly true to the historical and cultural “norm” regarding women being tied to a different kind of warfare than men and male deities have always been tied to; one requiring more… finesse.) Jingu is history’s first example of what otaku call the onna-bugeisha (or “woman warrior”).

Another semi-legendary figure is the Empress of Yamatai (smaller kingdom within ancient Japan), Himiko. She is referenced in Ancient Chinese court documents, and was one part ruler, one part priestess, one part warrior.

As we roll through *some* of the major players of this lady warrior game, I would also like to note here that even as late as our official occupation of the Japanese Home Islands after WWII, women were trained in close quarters combat, and they were expected to fight to the death to defend their communities from the Americans. While men were learning how to fight modern firearms-based warfare — and being sent off to it — women were literally turning plow shears into blades, and making damn sure they were not going to go down without a fight. In fact, there is an entire ryuha (training discipline; school) that specializes in naginata, and it did not generally accept men into its ranks. Within that school, there are sub-curricula involving jujutsu and small blade stuff.

This WWII home island defense stuff doesn’t even include the all-female Hime Yuri (Princess Lily) “units” during the Battle of Okinawa (which I will cover later. RIP.)

We’ll run through this in an “order of appearance” type format. Let’s start out with one of my favorite Japanese warriors *ever*: Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe (Gozen was her title; it means “lady” or “dame”, basically) was a Kamakura Period (late 12th Century) warrior who fought in the Genpei War (the first big Japanese Civil War).

She was hand-picked to be a tactical commander, and was sent alone on several missions. She was known (and feared) for her prowess as an archer and a swordswoman — mounted or on foot. She was one of the most renowned horse-breakers in the empire, and was also legendary for her ability to ride in the high-angle Japanese mountains in order to assault objectives that were considered impregnable.

During the Genpei War, she is counted as accomplishing more deeds of valor than any other warrior in the entire Empire. In battle she was particularly feared, and rode a horse while carrying an over-sized sword… specifically so motherfuckers would notice her *and seek her out*. She ranks squarely at the top of the decapitated-high-ranking-opponents list. (Other warriors’ heads were how you counted your success in combat back then. The higher ranked the head, the more points. And Tomoe had high score.) She escaped capture a number of times.

Guess I could also mention that she was also noted as being very beautiful, too. (For whatever that’s worth.)

When her master was defeated and awaited his suicide, he commanded Tomoe to GTFO of Dodge, and save herself. There is no accepted record of her death. And she lives on Japanese legends, fiction, culture, and my dreams.

So. She’s basically a girl I’d party with.

Another frequently mentioned femme fatale in this genre is Hangaku Gozen (she was also known as Itagaki; Japanese warriors had a lot of names). She was a contemporary of Tomoe Gozen, but lived further north, up the west coast — in Echigo (modern day Fukui Prefecture; nice place).

Her family lost its power after the Genpei War. And after the war, she commanded an army of 3,000 soldiers defending a position against 10,000 soldiers from the Hojo Clan (see, war never really stopped in Japan until the 1600s; that’s why they were so fucking good at it). She heroically defended her position until she was wounded by an arrow. After that, the defenses collapsed.

She was eventually taken to Kamakura — the capitol of the Shogūnate, south of Tokyo — and presented to the Shogūn as a trophy. She then married a noble, stayed in the area, and lived happily ever after.

She was said to have been fearless, deadly, and “beautiful as a flower”…


Author’s note: I’m not the biggest fan of pointing out what I’d consider to be irrelevant data. Are we talking about women, or warriors? Because those aren’t mutually exclusive titles. And a person’s value as one isn’t necessarily important to their value as the other. Same for a dude. Dude-things and chick-things are completely different qualifiers [to me] than warrior-things. And you may be great at doing one, but shitty at the other.

Whether I’m commanding and tasking you, taking orders from you, or standing next to you on the field of battle… whichever box you checked regarding gender is su-fucking-perfluous. Are you able/willing to do the job set before you? Then it’s all Kool & the Gang. Let’s go cut shit. I give zero fucks about the shape of your pelvis.

However, I do fully grasp that a lot of people aren’t up to speed on the relevance of details. So, we’ll continue to rap about Japanese Warrior Women (because let’s be honest here, I’m not only interested in them for their fightin’ skillz)…

“Theo Dyssean” is an internationally unknown expert in asking questions, finding answers, not getting caught, and not getting killed [and/or eaten by bears]. He enjoys moonlit runs down dark alleyways, and romantic evenings working through an interpreter who speaks less of the target language than he does. His hobbies include being in the wrong place at the wrong time, knowing where the exits are, being the fastest runner in the room, borrowing bikes, and sleeping in HVAC ducts. His religious and political views tend to orbit dominantly around Bobby Finstock’s Three Rules.

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Virginia Franklin
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Virginia Franklin

Awesome Theo, good to get a well rounded perspective on warriors.

clluelo
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clluelo

And this is why we are friends my friend

Joni Smith
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Joni Smith

Girls you would party with include those who would carry the biggest, baddest sword and would cut your head off if you were her sworn enemy. The fact they were pretty is just a bonus point. Haha. Honestly Tome had balls of steel to want people to seek her out. Truly a warrior at heart. Thanks for sharing this again. I loved this whole series. ⚔️⚔️♥️

Miche
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Miche

Hahaha! Oh, how I’ve missed these. And you added some stuff!! And a warrior (or goddess) should certainly be beautiful, if she possibly can. – – – – WHEN Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him. He is just what a young man ought to be,” said she, sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! — so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!” He is also handsome,” replied Elizabeth, which a young man ought… Read more »

Mason
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Mason

Hence some of my favorite movies, have women in leadership roles and are totally bad ass. Ridley Scott makes many of those films. Alien, Aliens, Prometheus, Thelma and Louise, etc. The movie Edge of Tomorrow with Emily Blunt was another.

Suzanne
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Suzanne

The Bond Girls are tough, too.

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