I recently came across another of history’s little-told stories; that of the female Samurai. I haven’t done extensive study of the Samurai culture and history but what little I have done has acquainted me with names like Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. A name I hadn’t come across before was Nakano Takeko. An hour long documentary entitled Samurai Warrior Queens on the Smithsonian channel introduced me to this fierce woman.
Nakano Takeko was born in Edo, a member of the Aizu domain and daughter of an Aizu official. Samurai women were trained in martial arts so they could protect the estates from bandits and Takeko began her training when she was six. She quickly showed aptitude, not only for the martial arts training but in scholarly pursuits as well. Her favorite stories were of Tomoe Gozen, a Samurai woman who’d fought and died 600 years before Takeko’s birth.
When Takeko was 16 her master, Daisuke, presented his nephew to her as a potential husband. If Takeko accepted, she’d be subject to her new husband and her name would probably have been lost to history. She refused and had to separate herself from her disgruntled master, becoming a martial arts instructor in her own right.
At the same time, Japan was rapidly changing. The Samurai had been in power for over 1000 years but their power was waning, as was Japan’s isolation from the west. It was an American, Commodore Matthew Perry, who used gunboat diplomacy to force the Shogun into a trade treaty in 1854. Once America had a foothold; Britain, France, and Russia followed. Many Samurai felt their country had been humiliated and rose against the Shogun, joining together under the banner of the Emperor, a relatively useless ruler based in Kyoto.
The Emperor’s Samurai had access to western weapons-rifles and canon-while the Shogun’s Samurai fought with the historical edged weapons. Not surprisingly, the Shogun’s Samurai were defeated and retreated north; Nakano Takeko and her sister Yuko among them.
The Shogun’s Samurai prepared for a last stand and a westerner, Henry Schnell, promised he could get them weapons. He intended to smuggle them through the port of Niigata but he was unsuccessful and ended up fleeing for his life. The Shogun’s Samurai were on their own.
Rumors spread about the Emperor’s fighters raping women and selling them into slavery but Takeko was determined not to commit suicide. She and her sister were determined to fight and other women rallied around them. They presented themselves at an Aizu outpost but the Samurai commander refused to allow them to fight as an official part of the domain’s army. Not to be refused, on the morning of October 10, 1868, Takeko Nakano leads 18 other women into battle.
They should have been cut down. The Emperor’s Samurai were armed with rifles, probably Spencer rifles; repeating rifles capable of 15 shots per minute. Instead, the order was given to take the women alive. This was a mistake. The opposing army was stunned at the women’s ferocity and none fought harder than Takeko. Despite her skill and ferocity, Nakano Takeko was killed. Her sister, Yuko, removed her head from the battlefield to prevent her from becoming an enemy trophy and managed to get it back to the family’s temple where the priest promised to bury Takeko with honor.
A memorial to Nakano Takeko has been erected and modern Japanese women train in the same fighting style Takeko would have learned. And yet, Nakano Takeko isn’t alone. While the traditional role of female Samurai was to defend castles, extinguish fires, tend wounded, and prepare ammunition, there were many who played vital roles on battlefields. And yet, most Samurai history revolves around men.
I have a book, Samurai: The code of the Warrior by Thomas Louis and Tommy Ito. This is hardly a comprehensive history of the Samurai and yet the only mention of female Samurai is:
Samurai girls did not receive formal education, but they were expected to run their husbands’ estate while they were away at war. They also received martial arts training, especially in the yari and naginata, and there are many examples of samurai women fighting alongside their husbands. The most famous samurai woman, Tomeo Gozen, lived during the Gempei Wars. She decapitated the enemy leader after he ripped her clothes, and she presented his head to her husband.
Why is there so little said of female Samurai’s contribution? According to the Smithsonian’s documentary, it would be shameful if the victorious outcome of a battle could, in any way, be attributed to women. Thus, glory and honor were reserved exclusively for male warriors. That is changing.
Archaeological evidence is finally showing the true magnitude of contributions of many women who fought with the same spirit as Nakano Takeko. Bones were discovered at Senbon Matsubara, site of a 1580 battle involving the Takeda Samurai. As the bones were unearthed and studied, forensic archaeologists were able to determine 30% of the fighting force were women. This discovery prompted the study of other battlefields and archaeologists were surprised to find the average held true: almost 30% of the Samurai fighting forces were women.
Nakano Takeko and her army were retroactively called the Women’s Army but their contribution recognized and history is beginning to recognize the many other women that sacrificed and died, equal to their male counterparts. The Samurai Warrior Queens.
Some interesting links: