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Throughout history, the warring class has been mainly a domain of men. However, the story of the Samurai includes several female samurai who demonstrated extraordinary fighting prowess, the spirit to defend one's honor and the strict adherence to the duty required of her towards her fellow warriors.
The naginata was a popular and widely used weapon among the womenfolk of the samurai. Consisting of basically a long pole with a curved blade at one end. Perhaps due to their slighter builds, female samurai were often given extensive training in the use of this weapon to fight with the enemy and defend themselves when required. Not surprising, many women became highly skilled in the use of the naginata.
Japanese epics and historical recordings mention several incidents of extreme courage and sense of duty exhibited by the female samurai. There are even prominent stories of the Samurai women taking upon themselves, the political duties of their deceased husbands. One woman, Hojo Masako, is believed to have been hugely responsible for rallying the Samurai together and having them stand by the shoguns.
Clearly, these snippets of history show us the kind of stature women enjoyed in the early Japanese samurai society. In fact, the laws in those times, gave clear rights to the women to stake an equal claim as their brothers in matters of property inheritance.
In the household, the women were accorded a high position in administrative matters. They controlled the household finances while also managing the domestic helpers. In addition to these duties, they were often summoned to fight in times of war. Also, the womenfolk of the male samurai were largely responsible for bringing up the children and raising them along the Samurai ideals of loyalty and courage.
The high esteem given to women both in the household and as warriors lasted from the 11th up through 16th century. However, by the 17th century, when various clan struggles arose, women were sadly reduced to being pawns in the hands of their fathers and brothers. They were often given off in marriage to other samurai in exchange for political favors and alliances.
During this time, the general feeling arose that women were only necessary to bring forth children and were not fitting as comrades in war. Such sentiments, interestingly, resulted in a general trend of homosexuality among the samurai, when men started to seek companionship in other men due to the lack of female company.
Despite such alienation, the women of samurai were still expected to show moral values and a sense of bounded duty towards her husband. The act of a wife giving up her life or honor for the sake of her husband was a very popular theme in Japanese drama.
And even though warrior women were being suppressed, stories of female samurai displaying their martial prowess still surfaced from time to time. Especially during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 and in 1868, when the shogunate and the imperial army fought. During these battles, samurai women played a brave and important part.
One celebrated women, Nakano Takeko, is known to have been highly skilled in the use of the naginata and sword. During the struggle between the shogunate and the supporters of imperial restoration in 1868, she charged into the enemy lines and fought bravely to cut down many a man. Unfortunately, she was eventually shot to death. Her head was removed by her sister to prevent the enemy from obtaining it.
A monument to Nakano Takeko was erected in the Hokai temple in Aizu Bangemachi, Fukishima province. Her courage, loyalty and understanding of honor well represented her sisters of the Female Samurai.
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