Onna-Bugeisha, which translates to woman warrior, was a type of female soldier in the times of feudal Japan. They were known as strong and capable fighters, every bit as courageous as their male counterparts. Part of the bushi class, to which belonged all samurai, they helped settle new lands, defend their territory, and were even allowed to supervise land as jito, meaning stewards. Traditionally, they were the last line of defense, making sure the community was protected whenever the men were off to war.
The origin of these renowned warriors is long before the emergence of the fabled samurai class. Since ancient times Japanese fighters were highly trained in the art of the sword and spear. However, these weapons were often not suited for women, because of their shorter stature. They fought using a naginata - a long, curved blade, attached to a spear – which gave them better balance and kaiken, a type of dagger.
One of the first such warriors was the Empress Jingū, who in 200 A.D., following the death of her husband Emperor Chūai, took to the throne and led an invasion of Silla, modern day Korea. There is much doubt as to if she actually existed, but her image became an example for the female warriors for centuries.
The 12th century saw the rise to prominence of probably the two most famous Onna-Bugeisha - Tomoe Gozen and Hangaku Gozen. Between 1180-1185 a conflict between the rival samurai dynasties of Minamoto and Taira, with Tomoe allying with the Minamoto and Hangaku fighting for Taira. Tomoe was an expert in archery, horseback riding, and the art of the katana. She was one of the few women warriors who engaged in offensive battle and in 1182 led 300 samurai into a fierce battle against 2,000 opposing warriors and was one of the only five survivors. Gozen’s reputation was so high that her master, General Kiso Yoshinaka considered her the first true general of Japan. In the Battle of Awazu she is fabled to have fought against the enemy’s best warrior, Honda no Moroshige, besting him and keeping his head as a trophy. Hangaku herself was as much a fierce warrior. During a revolt in 1201, trying to restore the Taira, who had lost the war, she commanded 3,000 warriors in a defense against 10,000 and but was ultimately captured.
During the 19th century came a new era of modernization, industrialization, and Westernization: The Samurai, who had once bravely protected the nation, lost favor and were abolished, together with the Onna-Bugeisha. The last of them fell at the Battle of Aizu in 1868. There a young and fierce warrior, Nakano Takeko led a special unit, made up only of female fighters. She was an extraordinary fighter with the naginata and a proficient martial artist but was fatally shot during the battle. With her dying breath she asked her sister to decapitate her, so that her body could not be taken as a trophy.