The Onna-Bugeisha: Japan’s Forgotten Female Samurai

If you haven’t realized yet, I have a bit of a thing for Japanese culture, but can you blame me?

From the Japanese Mafia and its ritualistic tattoos to Ancient Japan’s infamous tradition; Seppuku, ritual suicide, it’s impossible to not be fascinated. After learning a bit more about Japanese culture, I can see why so many little boys are obsessed with Samurai and Shinobi (ninja) and dress up as the legendary warriors for Halloween. I couldn’t help but feel left out as a girl, sometimes I was in the mood to dress up as a firebrand, samurai hero with a katana too.

Sadly, linguists have determined that the term “samurai” is masculine therefore excluding female samurai from their ranks.

Empress Jingū, woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1880)
Empress Jingū, woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1880.) PHOTO Wikipedia

Most super cool warriors from the past didn’t allow women within to join the battlefield (even though the girls could probably whoop most of those guys’ butts) so while researching Samurai and Shinobi, I didn’t get my hopes up about finding any instances of female Japanese warriors.

So, you can imagine my overwhelming elation when I stumbled upon historical accounts that unveiled the story of a single female Japanese warrior who fought in an invasion of Korea. But that’s not even the best part; not only did she fight in the battle, but she led the charge.

This woman was Empress Jingū who lived between 169 and 269 A.D., and she wasn’t the only female samurai in Japan.

Empress Jingu female samurai
Empress Jingū. Photo by @coolartokyo on Instagram

Empress Jingū (神功皇后 Jingū-kōgō) was a member of the onna-bugeisha – a Japanese sect of upper-class women warriors. Yes, you heard that right, there was once a faction of elite female martial artists who answered the call of duty and fought beside the legendary samurai as equals.

Here are two of the most famous onna-bugeisha in Japanese history:

Tomoe Gozen

Tomoe Gozen female samurai
Tomoe Gozen. Photo by @encyclopediaofbadassery on Instagram

The Genpei War (1180-1185) was the final straw in a decades-long conflict between clans for control of the Imperial court and in turn, control of Japan. You could say it was a pretty big deal. The final struggle had the two clans, the Taira, whom was at the height of their power at the time, and the Minamoto clan that was led by the renowned Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a genius strategist. Tomoe Gozen was one of the warriors that fought on the side of the Minamoto clan, it has been suggested that she may have been married to the daimyo of the clan, Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Tomoe Gozen (“gozen is a title given to a noble lady”) was described as an expert swordswoman as well as being skilled in horseback riding and archery. She was her clan’s first captain during the battle of Awazu in 1184. After a series of battles the Minamoto’s clan prevailed and the Kamakura shogunate was established in 1192.

Unfortunately, Minamoto no Yoshinaka died on the battlefield of Awazu and his cousin assumed the position of shogun in his place. Records are unclear as to Tomoe Gozen’s fate. She has become somewhat of a myth following the end of the war, some say she died during the battle, others suggest that the death of her husband was so devasting she rode away from the battle carrying an enemy’s head and disappeared to become a nun. It appears we will most likely never know what happened to the Minamoto clan’s captain that led them to victory in the Genpei war.

Hangaku Gozen

Hangaku Gozen female samurai
Hangaku Gozen. Photo by @kreweofjapanpodcast on Instagram

The Taira clan also had a proficient female warrior in their ranks during the Genpei war, Hangaku Gozen also known as Itagaki. After the battle of Awazu, resulting in a great loss for the Taira clan, Hangaku was ready for a reckoning. She enlisted in the Kennin uprising along with her nephew, Jo Sukemori in 1201. The Kennin Uprising was planning to overthrow the newly established Kamakura Shogunate. Hangaku accumulated an army of 3,000 warriors and led them as they defended Fort Torisakayama against an invading army of 10,000 Kamakura loyalists.

During the battle, it was said that she hurled massive planks of wood at the invaders which is absolutely iconic of her. The odds, however, were not in her favor and her army was forced to surrender after she was wounded by an arrow. She was then taken prisoner; the shogun was prepared to order her to commit seppuku for her crimes but thankfully her dashing good looks saved her. One of the shogun’s soldiers had “fallen in love” with her and was given permission to wed her instead. Hangaku’s retirement from fighting was solidified and she spent the rest of her life with her husband and eventually with their daughter.


It turned out that I couldn’t have been more wrong about the existence of female “samurai” in Feudal Japan and not only that, the fact that all three of these prominent onna-bugeisha were the ones that led their armies into battle is just icing on the cake. I think Halloween stores are going to have to start selling samurai costumes for women because I just found out exactly what I want to be for Halloween this year.