Samurai are popular Japanese cultural figures, and the stories of bravery in which they take centre stage have influenced modern culture, even though the last ‘true’ samurai, Saigo Takamori, died in the 19th century. You may not know that women played their part in samurai culture, and they even inspired the Conqueror’s Blade Unit, the Onna-musha.
‘Onna-musha’ is a term meaning ‘female warriors’ and applied to many legendary women throughout Japanese history. Onna-musha were members of the bushi (warrior) class and were trained in swordsmanship to protect their property, family, and honour—-just like traditional male samurai.
Two of these onna-musha live on in legend: Tomoe Gozen and Komatsuhime.
Tomoe Gozen: The Hero of the Genpei War
Tomoe Gozen is a celebrated onna-musha. Tales of her heroism are included in the Japanese epic Tale of Heike and influenced the samurai who followed her. ‘Gozen’ is a title meaning ‘lady’, and this particular lady was proficient in swordsmanship, archery, and riding horses.
In the late-Heian Period (a civil conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans), she served her daimyo Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a samurai lord, during the Genpei War as his first captain.
During the Genpei War, she commanded 300 samurai against 2,000 enemy soldiers of the rival Taira clan and won against seemingly unbeatable odds. Following this conflict, Tomoe Gozen took the head of Uchida Ieyoshi at the Battle of Awazu in 1184 AD, but ultimately Yoshinaka’s forces were defeated.
An illustration of Tomoe Gozen slaying Uchida Saburō Ieyoshi at the Battle of Awazu in 1184 by Ishikawa Toyonobu (1750 AD)
Komatsuhime: The Beauty and the Blade
Komatsuhime was another legendary onna-musha during the Sengoku and Edo periods. Komatsuhime is described as not only beautiful in appearance but exquisite with the blade. While she did not enter battle as Tomoe Gozen did, she is honoured as a samurai due to her involvement in Sanada clan affairs.
Komatsuhime’s father was a celebrated general by the name of Honda Tadakatsu, who served the overlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (thanks to this unerring loyalty, Komatsuhime was eventually adopted by Ieyasu as his own daughter). Komatsuhime and her father witnessed the military might of the Sanada during the Battle of Ueda. This led to Komatsuhime’s marriage to the son of the lord of the Sanada clan—Sanada Nobuyuki.
Some time later, conflict arose within the complicated family as Komatsuhime’s husband, Nobuyuki, decided to cast his lot with a rival clan—the Tokugawa. Nobuyuki’s father and leader of the Sanada clan, Masayuki, stopped by Numata Castle to see his grandchildren during this turmoil. He was met with Komatsuhime in full battle armour, telling him, “since we have parted ways in this conflict, though you are my father-in-law I cannot allow you into this castle”. However, as a true honourable onna-musha, Komatsuhime brought her children to see Masayuki at a nearby temple to which he was exiled, honouring his wish.
Admired as a good and noble wife, and an opinionated and confident onna-musha, Komatsuhime is still revered to this day.
A portrait of Komatsuhime from the Edo Period