Sunday, May 28, 2023

A Susan Spann Classic: Female Samurai Warriors

[We miss Susan, but she's left us a treasure trove of blog posts that we'll draw upon from time to time for no other reason than they're just so terrific!--Jeff]


When I say "samurai warrior," most people conjure an image of a man in lacquered armor wielding a pair of wicked swords.

Something like this:

Look! A samurai!
Or possibly this:

Yep, that's a samurai.

Far fewer people realize that, on occasion, samurai warriors also looked like this:

Onna-bugeisha, the female Japanese warrior

During (and since) the medieval era, the Japanese term for these female samurai warriors is onna-bugeisha (女武芸者). It translates roughly to "woman warrior."

The term "female samurai" isn't exactly correct, because all women born to samurai families were considered samurai--whether or not they wore swords and rode into battle like a man. Women in samurai households were usually literate and received at least minimal training in hand to hand combat, often with the naginata, a type of Japanese halberd. 

(Unlike European halberds, which were normally used by men, the naginata was normally considered most suitable for use by women and monks.)

Samurai women were expected to watch over the family income, accounts, and household when their fathers or husbands went to war, duties which often included managing ledgers and--when necessary--defending the home against thieves or invaders. These were NOT the "shrinking violets" many people imagine when they consider medieval Japanese wives!

Most onna-bugeisha lived as women--wearing women's clothes and acting as wives, daughters, and sisters except when danger required them to take up arms to defend their homes and families. 

Tomoe Gozen on horseback
However, if a samurai warrior had no son (and occasionally, even if he did) he could raise a daughter as a full-time onna-bugeisha. In rare cases, these women even adopted male dress and hairstyles, wore two swords, and served full-time in the army of the daimyo to whom they pledged their service.

Tomoe Gozen, center, fighting in the Genpei War
One famous onna-bugeisha, Tomoe Gozen, allegedly fought in the Genpei War (1180-1185) and served as a role model to generations of Japanese women. Although some historians argue about whether or not Tomoe Gozen truly lived, other famous onna-bugeisha like Hojo Masako and Nakano Takeko are well-documented historical figures.

Portrait of Nakano Takeko

My fondness for onna-bugeisha carries over into my fiction. The first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, featured a female samurai warrior named Akechi Yoshiko, who lives (and acts) more like a samurai man than a woman. Yoshiko makes a return appearance in my upcoming release, Flask of the Drunken Master (Minotaur, July 2015)--and I promise, she hasn't abandoned her warrior's ways.

One reason I set my books in Japan is the host of intriguing, surprising--and realistic--characters who populated that medieval world. I love exploring their stories, and sharing them with readers who might or might not realize that such people--though fictionalized in my stories--also existed in medieval Japan. 

The onna-bugeisha was only one...I'll share some others in weeks to come....

--Susan (who wishes she could walk around wearing swords).



  1. I love the concept of the onna-bugeisha, Susan. I have still-being-worked-on supernatural thriller where a group of people go to Japan and one of them is noted as an onna-bugeisha for her fierce protectiveness of the rest of her party. Maybe one day I'll get it out there...

    1. Frankly, Zoë, I see you as our modern-day onna-bugeisha! —- Jeff

    2. Ah, Jeff, that's the nicest thing anybody's said to me all day!

  2. What Jeff said goes for me too, Zoe. It aLao applies to Susan herself. A woman who deals with fearful events by meeting them head on. The true image of bravery. AA

    1. I second your comments about Susan, Annamaria!