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Women warriors of Japan

'The archaeological evidence, meager though it is," writes historian Stephen Turnbull in "Samurai Women 1184-1877" (2010), "tantalizingly suggests a wider female involvement in battle than is implied by written accounts alone." 

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 [Credit: Japan Times]
Armor and weapons have been found in the tombs of 4th-century female rulers. Do they support the historicity of the legendary Empress Jingu? They might — or might not; scholars disagree. 

The 8th-century "Nihon Shoki" chronicle credits her with invading Korea in the 3rd or 4th century A.D. — though the dating (in fact the event itself) is uncertain. Pregnant but undeterred, she "took a stone," says the "Nihon Shoki," "which she inserted in her loins, and prayed, saying, 'Let my delivery be in this land (Japan) on the day that I return after our enterprise is at an end.'" 

And so at the head of her army she made the crossing, watched over by two guardian spirits, a "gentle spirit" and a "rough spirit." The invasion was successful, and the empress returned to give birth to the future Emperor Ojin, later deified as Hachiman, the Shinto god of war. 

The gentle spirit and the rough spirit parted company. The Nara Period ( 710-784) and Heian Period (794-1185) were as uninterruptedly peaceful as history gets. During these centuries in which Japan acquired, assimilated and Japanified Chinese culture, the gentle spirit ruled unchallenged. The Genpei War marked its abdication or overthrow. 

Now it was the rough spirit's turn. "Chaotic spirit" may be a better name. Historians despair of making sense of Japan's "Middle Ages," from the late 12th century to the early 17th. Territorial lords led their unconditionally loyal, eagerly self-sacrificing samurai against neighboring territorial lords leading their unconditionally loyal, eagerly self-sacrificing samurai. The outcome in the fullness of time was the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns early in the Edo Period — but it took centuries of seemingly endless and purposeless slaughter and suicide. 

The climax was the Sengoku Jidai (the "Age of the Country at War"), from the late 15th century to the late 16th. The whole spectacle looks from this distance like nothing so much as the pursuit of death as an ideal superior to life. If this environment bred women whose like it would be hard to find elsewhere, is it surprising? 

What the sword was to a man — a weapon embodying his soul — the halberd-like naginata was to a woman. Picture, says Turnbull, "a cross between a sword and a spear with a curved blade rather than a straight one." 

"When a bushi (warrior) woman married," writes martial-arts historian Ellis Amdur (in "Women Warriors of Japan," 2002), "one of the possessions that she took to her husband's home was a naginata. Like the daishō (long and short swords) that her husband bore, the naginata was considered an emblem of her role in society. Practice with the naginata was a means of merging with the spirit of self-sacrifice, of connecting with the hallowed ideals of the warrior class." 

"Young girls," Nitobe adds, "were trained to repress their feelings, to indurate their nerves, to manipulate weapons, especially the naginata" — not, he says, for service on the battlefield, but rather, "With her weapon she guarded her personal sanctity with as much zeal as her husband did his master's." 

That may be true, but Amdur, citing a 16th-century chronicle, shows us a bushi wife who, "appalled by the mass suicide of the surviving women and children in her husband's besieged castle" — a scene fairly typical of those years — "armed herself and led 83 soldiers against the enemy, 'whirling her naginata like a waterwheel.' " 

One thing is certain: if chivalry is conspicuously absent from the Japanese tradition, there's a reason — it wouldn't have worked. 

The legendary ancient British King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are said to have sworn an oath, prototype of the Western knightly ideal of chivalry, "to fight only in just causes, at all times to be merciful, and at all times to put the service of ladies foremost." There was no such ideal in old Japan, little that we today would recognize as either justice or mercy, let alone service to ladies. Still, perhaps even in Japan there is an instinctive masculine deference to — or maybe simply contempt for — perceived feminine weakness. 

Turnbull, describing an event much later in time than the Sengoku Jidai but reminiscent of it in spirit, says of the siege by the forces of the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1867 against the last unreconciled Tokugawa loyalists at Aizu Castle in today's Fukushima Prefecture, "What followed was a bloody encounter that would have been more in keeping with the story of Tomoe Gozen rather than the year 1868. When the Imperial troops realized that they were facing women the cry went up to take them alive, but holding their fire meant that the women were soon upon them. Nakano Takeko" — of whom more shortly — "killed five or six men with her naginata before being shot dead." 

Nitobe mentions another weapon handled by bushi women — again, not on the battlefield, he says, for he hardly acknowledged women's presence there. "Girls," he says, "when they reached womanhood, were presented with kaiken (dirks) which might be directed to the bosom of their assailants, or, if advisable, to their own. ... When a Japanese maiden saw her chastity menaced, she did not wait for her father's dagger. Her own weapon lay always in her bosom. It was a disgrace to her not to know the proper way in which she had to perpetrate self-destruction." 

Tomoe Gozen, according to one of several versions of her legend, became a nun and lived to the ripe old age of 91 after she "fled away to the Eastern Provinces." This, if true, is a striking exception to the general rule that life in a state of nature or warfare is "nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes expressed it for the West — or fleeting like cherry blossoms, as Japanese tradition has it. The difference in emphasis is significant: the West deplores the truncated life; Japan beautifies it. 

Short-lived male Japanese warriors are accorded literary immortality, their deeds sung by future ages. Of how many women can that be said? How many of them are household names? : Hangaku Gozen? Sakasai Tomohime? Myorin-ni? Or the aforementioned Nakano Takeko of Aizu? 

They span Japan's bellicose centuries, from Hangaku (12th century) to Nakano (19th). The two women in between are of the Sengoku Jidai, defenders to the death of besieged castles — two among a great many, for castle defense was a woman's responsibility when the lord was off fighting, as he almost always was in those years. 

The apparent absence in these people of the faintest fear under the most fearful conditions, the total absence — or suppression? — of the instinctive, animal — and therefore subhuman? — will to live, makes them shining exemplars of the Way of the Warrior, and, to non-practitioners of that Way, more than a little chilling. The death of Sakasai Tomohime was especially remarkable. Her husband slain and the enemy triumphant, she cut down with her naginata a bronze signal bell and, weighted with it, plunged into the castle moat to drown. The year was 1536. She was 19. 

Hangaku and Nakano, seven centuries apart, have much in common; they would have understood each other. They are linked by the naginata they wielded, by their common role as castle defenders, (though a 12th-century castle wasn't much of a stronghold), by the state of rebellion in which they found themselves, by their unswerving loyalty to a clan, and by their innocence of any abstract ideal other than loyalty. 

In Hangaku's case that last was natural; in Nakano's it is more to be wondered at. When Hangaku's clan rebelled against the Minamoto Shogunate in 1189, it was a pure power struggle. "While archers (kept) up covering fire from the tower above the gate," writes Turnbull, "Hangaku Gozen (rode) into action, swinging her naginata." Like Tomoe, her near contemporary, she is a rare survivor. Wounded and captured, she was prevented from committing seppuku by an enemy warrior who sought her as a bride. This was a twist; her physical charms were said to be meager. Her subsequent marriage says something about the attraction of raw courage, the beauty of unsullied bravery, in times such as hers. 

Author: Michael Hoffman | Source: The Japan Times [October 09, 2011]

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