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Women in the Workplace: The Onna-Bugeisha of the Samurai Class

When you think of a samurai warrior, you probably picture a big, beefy man covered in armor, mounted on a steed while wielding a set of swords. In reality, most of the men in the samurai class were quite short (closer to 5’3’’) as compared to warriors from other countries in the same era. In addition, researchers have now determined that women, know as Onna-Bugeisha, made up a portion of these post-feudal Japanese warriors. Keep reading to discover more details about the samurai class as well as the role women played within it.



The samurai have a rich history spanning multiple centuries. Originally established in the 8th and 9th centuries, these military clan warriors, known as Shogun, served to dissolve rebellions against the emperor. The land-owning nobility also began employing these warriors for protection, leading to the development of the highly skilled and well-respected samurai class. By the 12th and 13th centuries, warring clans began fighting for political power and eventually took control of the government. Military conflict subsided in the 1600s, and the samurai became aristocrats more than militants.


The samurai existed until the mid-1800s, when these well-educated nobles gradually dissipated within society. The long and vast lineage of the samurai, in addition to Japan’s homogeneous reputation, means that perhaps every Japanese person is related to someone from the samurai class.


Women of the Samurai class

Rather than jumping into battle along with their husbands, brothers, and sons, the women of post-feudal Japan were expected to remain at home. Before you cry for feminist rights, however, understand that women were responsible for protecting their homes from attack. Becoming skilled in a few forms of combat and weaponry was essential, along with martial arts training. Upon hearing a disturbance in their village, the women would sweep the town for any signs of danger.


By the 15th century, wives of samurai warlords were described as leading groups of women warriors, known as Onna Bugeisha. Researchers have discovered the bodies of women at multiple battle-sites across Japan, shedding light on the extent of their participation. Some specific accounts do exist of women fighting alongside their husbands, and a few rose up as historical or political figures. These include Tomoe Gozen, Hangaku Gozen, and Empress Jingu.



The samurai most often utilized a set of weaponry including a long sword and a shorter knife or companion sword. The set is known as daisho, and it could only be worn by samurai. Possible combinations include the katana, tachi, nagamaki, or wakizashi blades. You can see and even buy examples of these by visiting Swords of The East. Women, however, typically chose another type of blade known as a naginata. This was a spear of sorts, with a curved blade atop a tall stick or pole. This naginata, lighter and more versatile than many katana blades, was the go-to weapon of choice for women at this time. Women warriors were both powerful and empowered, whether they remained homemakers or joined men on the battlefield.