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Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011

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Indomitable: Hangaku Gozen rides into battle swinging her bloodstained naginata and wearing yoroi armor symbolic of leadership during the siege of Torisaka Castle (in present-day Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku) in 1201, after her clan rose up against the powerful Minamoto Shogunate in a (losing) medieval power struggle. ©ILLUSTRATION BY GIUSEPPE RAVA, FROM "SAMURAI WOMEN 1184-1877" BY STEPHEN TURNBULL, REPRODUCED WITH THE KIND PERMISSION OF OSPREY C OSPREY PUBLISHING LTD. TO FIND THIS BOOK AND OTHERS LIKE IT, VISIT WWW.OSPREYPUBLISHING.COM

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


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

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Inviolable: This 1848 print by Kuniyoshi, titled "Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the 47 loyal ronin," shows the naginata-armed spouse of one of the disgraced Lord Asano's 47 former samurai who, in 1703, killed the court official he was said to have offended and for which he was ordered to commit seppuku. RAMA

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.

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Intrepid: The female samurai Tomoe Gozen pictured in action in an 1899 print by Yoshu Chikanobu. At the Battle of Awazu (in present-day Ishikawa Prefecture) in 1184, she beheaded the enemy lord Onda no Hachiro Moroshige of Musashi after grappling him off his horse.

"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).

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