The Museo Arte Orientale (MAO) is one of the best museums in Turin, coaxing you into alien perspectives with amazingly beautiful artefacts and clear explanations, some of which are also given in English. The exhibition I saw today, Guerriere dal Sol Levante, or Warrior Women from the Land of the Rising Sun, showed not only a glimpse of the rare women who fought as warriors but also provided the historical, political and religious context for their exploits.
The first thing the visitor sees is a video that gives a brief overview of the history of the onna bugeisha, the warrior woman in Japanese society. It ran through a long list of names, often illustrating their stories with cinematic reenactments and it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard of any of them before. So, instead of giving an account of the exhibition itself (as fascinating as it was), I have decided to limit myself to introducing you to some of the big names in Japan’s history of badassettes.
Jingū (c.169-269CE )
Jingū was Empress Consort to Chūai, ruling as regent for her son starting from her husband’s death in 201. Legend has it that she led an army into a ‘promised land’, possibly Korea, and won a big victory. It’s not really clear whether she really existed though. The Koreans object, for one thing, to ‘Jingu-ism’.
Tomoe Gozen (c.1154-?)
Tomoe Gozen was sister-in-law, concubine and ‘milk-sister’ (i.e. they shared a wet-nurse) to Minamoto no Yoshinaka (1154-1184). She accompanied him into battle, led his troops on the battlefield and stayed with him until he was killed in the Battle of Awazu (1184). In the epic The Tale of the Heike, she is described as an exemplary warrior:
Of rare strength and skill in archery, whether on horseback or on foot, sword in hand, she was a warrior capable of facing demons or gods and alone was worth a thousand men. Expert in mounting the fieriest horses, descending the steepest slope, when approaching the battle, wearing heavy armour with tightened cuirass, a long sword and a powerful bow in her hand, she appeared to the enemy as a first rank captain. She had accomplished brilliant deeds, unequalled by her peers. And so, once again, when many had retreated or fled, Tomoe was among the seven knights who had not been hit.”
p.41 Guerriere dal Sol Levante/Warrior Women from the Rising Sun (Torino, 2019)
Hōjō Masako (1157-1225)
The first shōgun for the first bafuku (literally ‘camp’ or ‘army HQ’) of the Kamakura shogunate was Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199). Hōjō Masako was his consort and when her husband died, she became a Buddhist nun. At the same time, she continued to be involved in politics and became known later as ama-shōgun or the ‘nun shogun’. She helped create a council of regents for the her teenaged son, but he preferred his wife’s clan and rebelled (and was subsequently killed). Her second son was executed by a nephew in 1219 and the Minamoto line was extinguished.
According to a now disputed source, Investigation of Japanese History by Shisei Inagaki, Mochizuko Chiyo was a noblewoman who recruited prostitutes, orphans and abandoned girls to create all-female force of secret-service ninjas for the Takeda Clan. It’s a good story anyway.
When Ōuchi Yoshitaka’s power started spreading on the mainland of Honshu, the nearby island of Ōmishima fell under threat. When the head priest at the island’s Ōyamazumi Shrine died, his 15-year-old daughter Tsuruhime inherited his position. As she’d learned martial arts from a young age, she now took charge of the military resistance. When Ōuchi samurai invaded the island in 1541, she led an army that drove them back into the open sea. A few months later she raided the ship of an Ōuchi general, cut him down, then drove his fleet away with bombs called horokubiya.
In the period of the ‘warring states’ (1477-1573), warriors tended to prove their kills by collecting the heads of their victims. The heads then underwent a treatment called kubi genshō ‘making up of the heads’: washing, hair-styling, applying make-up and blackening teeth. This was usually done by women. The Oan Monogatari is the testimony of a girl named Yamada Kyōreki or Oan, the daughter of a Samurai, who had this unenviable job:
“My mother and I, together with the wives and daughters of the other samurai, were in the keep from which we threw bullets. The severed heads taken by our allies were gathered in the keep. […] Not even the severed heads scared us. We slept surrounded by the smell of blood from those old heads.”
The Jōshigun (1868-1869)
The Boshin War (or if you’re not into the whole brevity thing ‘War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon’) was a civil war fought between ruling forces of the Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return power to the Meiji Imperial Court. Aizu was the site of the bloodiest episodes and among those fighting was a 30-strong voluntary brigade of women later known as the Jōshigun. In that area, warrior-class women were trained in the use of weapons from an early age, particularly the naginata, a long pole with a curved blade at one end. Takeko Nakana was one of these women and, when she was wounded in battle, such was her valiant spirit that she asked her sister to behead her so that the enemy couldn’t take the head as a trophy. You can read the whole story-in-pictures here.