This weekend, I’m at the ConDor Science Fiction convention in San Diego, California. Once I get home, I’ll be entering the home stretch on my novel The Brazen Shark, which is the third of my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. One of the characters I’ve introduced in this novel is Imagawa Masako, a woman samurai who resists the Japanese imperial restoration.
Although somewhat rare, there were several notable women samurai. Typically referred to as “onna-bugeisha,” women warriors came from the bushi class, same as samurai. If a woman showed interest and ability as a warrior, she would be trained just as a man. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that more women were encouraged to become warriors in times of war than in peacetime.
One notable samurai was Tomoe Gozen who would have lived between about 1157 and 1247. In the “Tale of the Heike” it was written, “Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”
There’s some question whether Tomoe was a real historical figure or not. However, many other characters from the “Tales of the Heiki” are known to have existed. What’s more, there are other documented women who became samurai such as Lady Hangaku and Hōjō Masako, who lent her given name to my samurai character.
Once Japan became unified under the Tokagawa regime, fewer women were encouraged to become samurai, but there still are notable examples even as late as the nineteenth century. One example is Nakano Takebo. She fought in the Boshin War, which was part of the samurai struggle against the Meiji Restoration. She specialized in the naginata, the Japanese version of the polearm, and led a corps of onna-bugeisha. She died during a charge against Imperial Japanese forces. Today during the Aiza Autumn festival, girls wear hakama—the pants worn over kimonos—and white headbands in her honor.