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Women played a very signiﬁcant role in Japan during the Tokugawa Period. Grandmothers and mothers were responsible for managing the household. Some women held supportive government roles. There was also a small group of women who served as warriors.
These female warriors were called onna-bugeisha or onna-musha. Onna-bugeisha typically wore long silk robes that resembled dresses, called kimonos. These t-shaped robes varied in style and color and were based on the woman’s age, social ranking, and marital status.
AT thIS TIme, THE wORd samurai wAS typicaLLy usED FOR MEN. THE tERms ONna-bugeISHA AND ONna-musHA mEAn “womAN wARrIOr.”Nakano Takeko became a signiﬁcant onna-bugeisha during the Tokugawa Period. As a daughter of a samurai in Aizu, a traditional territory in Northern Japan, Nakano took after her family and became passionate about martial arts.
Nakano studied with leading martial arts teachers and was dedicated to the mastery of the naginata. The naginata was a weapon made of metal or wood, which had a curved blade on the end; it was used for maintaining distance from opponents. It was previously the primary weapon for warrior monks and later became a tool used to help women strengthen their discipline. AT 21 yEArs old, NakANo cONTInuOUsly traINED wITh THE nagINATa AND maDE aPProximATely ONe thOUsAND swORd cuts pER day.She formed a group of more than 20 female samurai, known as the Jōshigun or the “Women’s Army.” Together, they mastered the naginata and committed to protecting the Aizu Domain.
The women of Aizu were the most authentic Japanese female warriors. They received expert training with the naginata and became experienced with various weapons, including the sword. They courageously committed to protecting their daimyo. The skills that the onna-bugeisha of Aizu developed matched those of their soon-to-be opponents.
Nakano and the group of brave onna-bugeisha eventually used the naginata in battle during the Boshin Sensō. Also called the Japanese Civil War, Boshin Sensō began in January 1868 when the emperor claimed the city of Kyoto. Many people, however, revolted against the return of the emperor. Supporters of the shogun and people of Aizu attempted to reclaim the city of Kyoto, but were unsuccessful.
Imperial forces sought to defeat the Tokugawa shogunate and return control of Japan to the emperor, Mutsuhito, also called Meiji. This operation became known as the Meiji Restoration.
In October 1868, the pro-Tokugawa Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle was attacked by imperial forces. This invasion was called the Battle of Aizu. In the battle, the imperial forces came bearing swords and riﬂes.
Nakano and the other onna-bugeisha quickly geared up and entered battle without receiving approval from the leaders of the domain. The brave women warriors were committed to protecting the Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle and honoring the Tokugawa shogunate.
BeFORe ENTERINg bATtLE, THE woMEN cut AND TIED up THEir HAir TO lOOk like yOUng MEN. AT firST, THE impERial trOOps did not REalize THEy wERe fighTIng AN ARmy OF woMEN wARrIOrs. Nakano’s mastery of the naginata helped her defeat many of her enemies. As she battled her way through her opponents, she was shot with a riﬂe.
Unable to recover, Nakano’s dying wish was that her sister remove her head and bury it in Aizu to avoid becoming a trophy.
In November 1868, a month after the battle began, Aizu surrendered to the imperial army. The Tokugawa Period, which lasted over 260 years, was ﬁnally brought to an end. The Tokugawa shogunate was the third and last shogunate Period of Japan. This was the peak of the Meiji Restoration, a revolution that led to the modernization of Japan. NakANo Takeko prOUdly protectED THE Aizu DomaIN wITh HEr skiLLs AS a yOUng ONna-bugeISHA.Nakano’s great honor and brave leadership represented Aizu, a city rich with martial arts history. Even today, the city of Aizu celebrates the courageous acts of onna-bugeisha at the Aizu Festival each year. Nakano and the Jōshigun are recognized as some of the most inﬂuential women warriors of Japan.