Women warriors of Japan

The menfolk of these islands have had their martial ideals since time immemorial, but there have been many women with that fighting spirit, too

by Michael Hoffman

“Ah, for some bold warrior to match with, that Kiso might see how fine a death I can die!”

Tomoe Gozen was the prototypical Japanese female warrior.

She had “long black hair and a fair complexion, and her face was very lovely; moreover she was a fearless rider, whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for 1,000 warriors, fit to meet either god or devil.”

A woman so dashing deserves to be better known. She figures, all too fleetingly, in the “Heike Monogatari,” the 13th-century chronicle of the 12th-century Genpei War, the classic confrontation between the Taira and Minamoto military clans.

Minamoto won, which resulted in a power shift from Kyoto, the ancient capital, to the remote eastern encampment of Kamakura.

Tomoe Gozen was — what? the mistress? wife? servant? the extant descriptions vary — of a Minamoto ally whose insubordination got him eliminated fairly early in the campaign. This was Minamoto Kiso Yoshinaka, who, surrounded and facing certain death, called Tomoe to him and said: “As you are a woman, it were better that you now make your escape.”

“As you are a woman!” He scarcely knew her, obviously. But then, Japan has always scanted its female warriors. They seem at times almost an embarrassment, their very existence a blow to masculine pride. Bushido, the “Way of the Warrior,” is “a teaching primarily for the masculine sex,” wrote Inazo Nitobe in his book “Bushido” (1900), the classic English-language text on the subject.

But to return to Tomoe, bristling at Kiso’s blindness to her finer qualities, “She drew aside her horse, and waited,” continues the “Heike Monogatari.”

“Presently, Onda no Hachiro Moroshige of Musashi, a strong and valiant samurai, came riding up with 30 followers, and Tomoe, immediately dashing into them, flung herself upon Onda and, grappling with him, dragged him from his horse, pressed him calmly against the pommel of her saddle and cut off his head. Then, stripping off her armor, she fled away to the Eastern Provinces.”

Nitobe’s is the general view, but is it true? An old samurai tale, told by the novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) in “Tales of Samurai Honor” is apropos.

Samurai boy and samurai girl hear of each other and, sight unseen, fall in love. The parents’ objections are overcome; they marry.

When their lord falls ill and dies, the young husband is bent on seppuku (ritual suicide) to prove his limitless loyalty.

“Well, die bravely,” says his wife. “I am a woman, and therefore weak and inconstant. After you’re gone I’ll look for another husband.”

Embittered by this unexpected proof of worldly vanity, the husband is all the more determined to die. He commits glorious seppuku — and his wife follows him in death, having written: “At our final parting I spoke coldly, faithlessly, in order to anger my husband so he could die without regret at leaving me.”

The moral of the story? Japanese men never knew their women.

The truth is, or seems to be, that women were every bit as imbued with the spirit of Bushido as men, though they got little recognition for it. All Japanese women were warriors.

What was a Japanese warrior?

“The idea most vital and essential to the samurai,” wrote the 17th-century warrior Daidoji Yusan in “A Primer of Bushido,” “is that of death.” A warrior lived as though dead, because any minute he (or she) might be, by his (or her) own hand if not by an enemy’s. “Think what a frail thing life is,” said Yusan, “especially that of a samurai. This being so, you will come to consider every day of your life your last.”

To that add one more concept, unconditional loyalty, and the ideology of Bushido is basically exhausted.

“Woman’s surrender of herself to the good of her husband, home and family,” wrote Nitobe, “was as willing and honorable as the man’s self-surrender to the good of his lord and country. Self-renunciation … was the keynote of the loyalty of man as well as of the domesticity of woman … In the ascending scale of service stood woman, who annihilated herself for man, that he might annihilate himself for the master, that he in turn might obey Heaven.”

“The good of his lord and country,” said Nitobe, but in fact until modern times the concept of “country” was abstract to the point of nonexistence. Loyalty was purely personal. As for annihilation, there was that in profusion, notwithstanding the archipelago’s security from hostile neighbors. Slaughter and self-slaughter mar the history of Japan — or brighten it, if you share the eerily necrophilic bushi ethic — from the Genpei Wars until the early years of the long peace of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

‘The archaeological evidence, meager though it is,” writes historian Stephen Turnbull in “Samurai Women 1184-1877″ (2010), “tantalizingly suggests a wider female involvement in battle than is implied by written accounts alone.”

Armor and weapons have been found in the tombs of 4th-century female rulers. Do they support the historicity of the legendary Empress Jingu? They might — or might not; scholars disagree.

The 8th-century “Nihon Shoki” chronicle credits her with invading Korea in the 3rd or 4th century A.D. — though the dating (in fact the event itself) is uncertain. Pregnant but undeterred, she “took a stone,” says the “Nihon Shoki,” “which she inserted in her loins, and prayed, saying, ‘Let my delivery be in this land (Japan) on the day that I return after our enterprise is at an end.’”

And so at the head of her army she made the crossing, watched over by two guardian spirits, a “gentle spirit” and a “rough spirit.” The invasion was successful, and the empress returned to give birth to the future Emperor Ojin, later deified as Hachiman, the Shinto god of war.

The gentle spirit and the rough spirit parted company. The Nara Period ( 710-784) and Heian Period (794-1185) were as uninterruptedly peaceful as history gets. During these centuries in which Japan acquired, assimilated and Japanified Chinese culture, the gentle spirit ruled unchallenged. The Genpei War marked its abdication or overthrow.

Now it was the rough spirit’s turn. “Chaotic spirit” may be a better name. Historians despair of making sense of Japan’s “Middle Ages,” from the late 12th century to the early 17th. Territorial lords led their unconditionally loyal, eagerly self-sacrificing samurai against neighboring territorial lords leading their unconditionally loyal, eagerly self-sacrificing samurai. The outcome in the fullness of time was the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns early in the Edo Period — but it took centuries of seemingly endless and purposeless slaughter and suicide.

The climax was the Sengoku Jidai (the “Age of the Country at War”), from the late 15th century to the late 16th. The whole spectacle looks from this distance like nothing so much as the pursuit of death as an ideal superior to life. If this environment bred women whose like it would be hard to find elsewhere, is it surprising?

What the sword was to a man — a weapon embodying his soul — the halberd-like naginata was to a woman. Picture, says Turnbull, “a cross between a sword and a spear with a curved blade rather than a straight one.”

“When a bushi (warrior) woman married,” writes martial-arts historian Ellis Amdur (in “Women Warriors of Japan,” 2002), “one of the possessions that she took to her husband’s home was a naginata. Like the daishō (long and short swords) that her husband bore, the naginata was considered an emblem of her role in society. Practice with the naginata was a means of merging with the spirit of self-sacrifice, of connecting with the hallowed ideals of the warrior class.”

“Young girls,” Nitobe adds, “were trained to repress their feelings, to indurate their nerves, to manipulate weapons, especially the naginata” — not, he says, for service on the battlefield, but rather, “With her weapon she guarded her personal sanctity with as much zeal as her husband did his master’s.”

That may be true, but Amdur, citing a 16th-century chronicle, shows us a bushi wife who, “appalled by the mass suicide of the surviving women and children in her husband’s besieged castle” — a scene fairly typical of those years — “armed herself and led 83 soldiers against the enemy, ‘whirling her naginata like a waterwheel.’ “

One thing is certain: if chivalry is conspicuously absent from the Japanese tradition, there’s a reason — it wouldn’t have worked.

The legendary ancient British King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are said to have sworn an oath, prototype of the Western knightly ideal of chivalry, “to fight only in just causes, at all times to be merciful, and at all times to put the service of ladies foremost.” There was no such ideal in old Japan, little that we today would recognize as either justice or mercy, let alone service to ladies. Still, perhaps even in Japan there is an instinctive masculine deference to — or maybe simply contempt for — perceived feminine weakness.

Turnbull, describing an event much later in time than the Sengoku Jidai but reminiscent of it in spirit, says of the siege by the forces of the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1867 against the last unreconciled Tokugawa loyalists at Aizu Castle in today’s Fukushima Prefecture, “What followed was a bloody encounter that would have been more in keeping with the story of Tomoe Gozen rather than the year 1868. When the Imperial troops realized that they were facing women the cry went up to take them alive, but holding their fire meant that the women were soon upon them. Nakano Takeko” — of whom more shortly — “killed five or six men with her naginata before being shot dead.”

Nitobe mentions another weapon handled by bushi women — again, not on the battlefield, he says, for he hardly acknowledged women’s presence there. “Girls,” he says, “when they reached womanhood, were presented with kaiken (dirks) which might be directed to the bosom of their assailants, or, if advisable, to their own. … When a Japanese maiden saw her chastity menaced, she did not wait for her father’s dagger. Her own weapon lay always in her bosom. It was a disgrace to her not to know the proper way in which she had to perpetrate self-destruction.”

Tomoe Gozen, according to one of several versions of her legend, became a nun and lived to the ripe old age of 91 after she “fled away to the Eastern Provinces.” This, if true, is a striking exception to the general rule that life in a state of nature or warfare is “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes expressed it for the West — or fleeting like cherry blossoms, as Japanese tradition has it. The difference in emphasis is significant: the West deplores the truncated life; Japan beautifies it.

Short-lived male Japanese warriors are accorded literary immortality, their deeds sung by future ages. Of how many women can that be said? How many of them are household names? : Hangaku Gozen? Sakasai Tomohime? Myorin-ni? Or the aforementioned Nakano Takeko of Aizu?

They span Japan’s bellicose centuries, from Hangaku (12th century) to Nakano (19th). The two women in between are of the Sengoku Jidai, defenders to the death of besieged castles — two among a great many, for castle defense was a woman’s responsibility when the lord was off fighting, as he almost always was in those years.

The apparent absence in these people of the faintest fear under the most fearful conditions, the total absence — or suppression? — of the instinctive, animal — and therefore subhuman? — will to live, makes them shining exemplars of the Way of the Warrior, and, to non-practitioners of that Way, more than a little chilling. The death of Sakasai Tomohime was especially remarkable. Her husband slain and the enemy triumphant, she cut down with her naginata a bronze signal bell and, weighted with it, plunged into the castle moat to drown. The year was 1536. She was 19.

Hangaku and Nakano, seven centuries apart, have much in common; they would have understood each other. They are linked by the naginata they wielded, by their common role as castle defenders, (though a 12th-century castle wasn’t much of a stronghold), by the state of rebellion in which they found themselves, by their unswerving loyalty to a clan, and by their innocence of any abstract ideal other than loyalty.

In Hangaku’s case that last was natural; in Nakano’s it is more to be wondered at. When Hangaku’s clan rebelled against the Minamoto Shogunate in 1189, it was a pure power struggle. “While archers (kept) up covering fire from the tower above the gate,” writes Turnbull, “Hangaku Gozen (rode) into action, swinging her naginata.” Like Tomoe, her near contemporary, she is a rare survivor. Wounded and captured, she was prevented from committing seppuku by an enemy warrior who sought her as a bride. This was a twist; her physical charms were said to be meager. Her subsequent marriage says something about the attraction of raw courage, the beauty of unsullied bravery, in times such as hers.

Though very late in Japan’s heroic tradition, “Aizu’s women,” writes Turnbull, “were the most authentic women warriors in the whole of Japanese history.” Why they are more “authentic” than others is not clear, but certainly they are no less so.

The Aizu clan, a branch of the Tokugawa from around the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu in present-day Fukushima Prefecture, preferred extinction to an Imperial Restoration at the expense of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The result was the Boshin War — Japan’s first, perhaps, in which abstract principles, rather than mere territorial aggrandizement, were at stake.

The new Meiji regime that took power in 1868 stood for modernization, industrialization and Westernization — if only to defeat the encroaching Western “barbarians” at their own game. Tokugawa meant seclusion, stagnation, tradition. But this was beside the point for Aizu’s defenders, and for Nakano Takeko among them as she charged the guns of the Imperial forces with her naginata. Loyalty and the chance to die beautifully were their sole inspiration. We gather as much from a death poem left by another female defender of the besieged castle: “Each time I die and am reborn in the world I wish to return as a stalwart warrior.”

Struck down by a bullet in the chest, Nakano with her dying breath ordered her sister Yuko to cut off her head and save it from the enemy. She was 21. Her head was buried under a tree in a temple courtyard.

‘Even though I am not worthy to be counted among the mighty warriors … I shout bravely to enflame true Japanese hearts.”

Taseko Matsuo (1811-94) brandished no naginata. Her weapon was a writing brush. She was a peasant poet, briefly famous in her own time, lifted from obscurity in ours by historian Anne Walthall (“The Weak Body of a Useless Woman,” 1998).

Matsuo was born in the Ina Valley in today’s Nagano Prefecture. Her family was of the “village elite.” They brewed sake, loaned money, raised silkworms and grew prosperous. Her father and later her husband were village headmen. There had been poets in the family. Matsuo was no typical country girl, 90 percent of whom in the early 19th century were illiterate.

An itinerant nationalist poet sojourning in the area in 1852 jarred Matsuo’s early absorption in elegant 31-syllable verse and taught her instead poetic “sincerity.” From then on she was, in her words, “crazy with Japanese spirit.” So was Takeko Nakano, and yet their loyalties were irreconcilable — Matsuo’s dedicated to the Imperial forces primed to “revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians”; Nakano’s to those of the Tokugawa whose submission to the Western powers demanding an end to Japan’s 250 years of enforced isolation sped the shogunate’s downfall.

In 1860, Ii Naosuke, the Tokugawa Shogun’s chief minister, was assassinated by nationalists incensed by his capitulation to “barbarian” demands that Japan open the country after its centuries of isolation.

“Good!” cried Matsuo, according to Walthall: “The warriors shout and shout, enflaming the true Japanese spirit of these myriad islands.” Of the foreigners she exhorted, “Cut them down and get rid of them — these weeds that flourish in the fields of summer.” She cursed her gender for keeping her on the sidelines: “How awful to have the ardent heart of a manly man and the useless body of a weak woman.”

In 1862 came the seminal event in her life. Aged 51, she left her family and journeyed to Kyoto, hotbed of nationalist agitation against the shogunate. Poetry and politics, poetry and war, were one. Earlier she had written, “Even though I don’t have the body to take up a long sword, if something happened might it not be that I could do something for the country?”

She could. Poetry gatherings in Kyoto were her battlefield. “No matter what the occasion for our meetings,” she told her husband in a letter, “I’m asked to write poetry full of Japanese spirit.” It came naturally to her. She wrote lines such as: “Despite many vicissitudes the age of the gods will surely come”; “In awe I respectfully greet the dawning of the Imperial age.”

Disillusion was bitter. The Meiji Era (1868-1912) as it unfolded was no “age of the gods”; the Westernized, industrialized economic powerhouse that Japan fast became was not the “imperial age” she’d yearned for. She wrote, “My assumption that we were returning to the divine age of Kashiwara” — site of the enthronement of Jimmu, Japan’s mythical first Emperor — “has become nothing more than an impossible dream.”

As for the increasingly visible and influential foreigners, “When will it be possible to purify this realm by cutting down and expelling those noxious barbarian weeds that have grown so rampant?”

The Boshin War, in Turnbull’s view, marks the end of the age of the female warrior: “Just as the elite samurai class gave way to the conscript army of the modernizing Meiji government, so did women warriors give way to men, and Japan’s modern wars, from the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) to World War II, were all-male affairs.”

Were they really? “The whole Japanese race was at war” — that’s how World War II looked to Tetsuko Tanaka. She was a high school student, but “our education became mostly volunteer work” — in her case, making paper for balloon bombs designed to wreak havoc in the United States. Her recollections, and those of several other women who deserve to be considered World War II warriors, on or off the battlefield, are included in “Japan at War: An Oral History,” by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook (1992).

Tanaka is quite right — the martial spirit raged nationwide; Taseko Matsuo would have been proud. Typical are the experience and the feelings of Toki Tanaka (no relation), a young farm wife at the time, not naturally bellicose, who recalls, “As the war dragged on … we practiced with bamboo spears on the school ground under the blazing-hot sun. Some fainted because of the heat. Men made the spears for us and hung up dolls made of straw, shaped like men. … But when I thought about my husband’s hardship at the front, doing that much seemed natural.”

Tetsuko Tanaka was of samurai stock: “My grandmother used to tell me, ‘You must behave like the daughter of a warrior family.’ I was always conscious of that.” The balloon bombs were Japan’s “secret weapon,” or one of them. Some 9,000 were launched, to little effect as it turned out. The girls at Tanaka’s school in Yamaguchi Prefecture threw themselves into the work, urging only to be worked harder: “We addressed a petition to our principal, pledging ourselves in blood. One of the girls who lived near the school rushed home to get a razor so we could cut our fingers to write in blood: ‘Please let us serve the nation.’ “

“We only learned some 40 years later,” she said, “that the balloon bombs we made actually reached America. They started a few forest fires and inflicted some casualties, among them children. … When I heard that I was stunned.”

Kikuko Miyagi was a student nurse serving on the battlefields of Okinawa. Mobilized in February 1945, “I assured Father and Mother I would win the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, eighth class, and be enshrined at Yasukuni. Father was a country schoolteacher. He said, ‘I didn’t bring you up to the age of 16 to die!’ I thought he was a traitor to say such a thing.”

The horrors she endured during the awful Battle of Okinawa are beyond the scope of this story. The American forces closed in. “For the first time, we heard the voice of the enemy. ‘…We have food! We’ll rescue you!’ They actually did!” The Americans weren’t demons after all. “So what we had been taught robbed us of life. I can never forgive what education did to us!”

Would the heroines of Bushido say the same of their education if they could see life from today’s standpoint? Or would modern times, rooted in the pursuit of long life and personal happiness, seem to them hopelessly depraved and decadent?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW Publishing, 2010). His website is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com.