Long before the Samurai, Japanese fighters were highly skilled in the use of a sword and spear. Some communities, though, lacked male fighters. The led to the emergence of the Omna-bugeisha. Who were the Omna-bugeisha, what were their skills and how important were they in Japanese history?
To protect themselves, their families and village, Japanese women learned how to use naginata (a long pole with a curved blade attached) and kaiken (an 8-10 inch dagger). They were trained in the traditional Japanese knife fighting art of Tantojutsu. Such training ensured protection in communities that lacked male fighters. Empress consort Jingū served as regent from the time of her husband’s death in 201 CE until her son acceded to the throne in 269 CE. In 200 CE, according to legend, Jingū miraculously led an invasion of Korea, without shedding a drop of blood. She became recognised as the Omna-bugeisha, literally meaning female martial artist. Even though her existence and accomplishments are controversial, as a legendary figure she is the perfect example of an Omna-bugeisha today. Jingū wasn’t just noted for her warrior skills though. Her diplomatic skills inspired both economic and social change. In 1881, she was the first woman to feature on a Japanese bank note.
Other notable female fighters include Tomoe Gozen, servant of Yoshinaka, who assisted him in defending himself against the forces of his cousin, during the Battle of Awazu on 21 February 1184. In The Tale of the Heike she is described as “a remarkably strong archer…a swords-woman…a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god…she performed more deeds of valour than any of his[Yoshinaka’s]other warriors.”
In the ancient history of Japan, it was more common to see women become reigning empresses, which changed during the period of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It is believed, though, that many more women participated in battles than were recorded. Recent DNA tests show that of 105 bodies excavated from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580, 35 were women. This is a testimony to the importance of fighting warrior women in ancient Japan and the legacy of the Omna-bugeisha.
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