Forgotten Samurai Women

Forgotten Samurai Women by Margaret Dilloway

One day, my dad told me, “You know your mother was from a samurai family, right?”

Um, no, didn’t know that. That kind of information is good to know!My mom had said only that her family had been the royal seal-bearers (which I guess, though it doesn’t sound as exciting as samurai, is ranked above samurai).

Then I wondered: were there any female samurai?

To my surprise, there were. There’s even a book (albeit slender) about them.

I’d never been interested in samurai in my life. Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom had a set of samurai dolls, a man and a woman. The woman had silk robes and real human hair and a detailed kimono costume, right down to the knife she kept in the sleeve.

I always thought that was cool.

I got a book about samurai which had a family tree of notable samurai families. I found my mom’s family and discovered that it is an offshoot of the Minamoto branch.
Then I got the samurai women book.

Women fought in a variety of ways. There was Empress Jingu, who was said to lead her army into war while she was heavily pregnant. Other women trained to defend their homes while the men were away.

And then there was Tomoe Gozen.

Lady Tomoe was said to be the most beautiful bad-ass woman who ever lived, who was the best archer (from horseback) and best swordsman (she fought with a man’s sword). She fought alongside a general named Yoshinaka Minamoto during the 12th century.

Tomoe Gozen. Women didn’t actually paint their faces for battle, but re-enactors often do, a practice that probably stems from kabuki traditions.

Minamoto! That’s where my mom’s family came from.

Yoshinaka was an interesting character. Her parents had rescued him as an infant from an intra-family feud, and he grew up with Tomoe and her brothers. He was said to be a brilliant military tactician, who won several battles with like a quarter as many troops, but a horrible politician. His nickname was, “Kiso,” or “hillbilly,” because he was from the northern mountain area (in what is now Nagano).

Some people think that Tomoe wasn’t real, that she was invented to discredit Yoshinaka by saying he was a wimp for fighting with a female captain. She’s mentioned briefly in The Heike, a mostly true account of the Genpei War, where the Minamoto fought the Taira for the shogunate at the beginning of the shogun era. (One part said she ripped a tree out of the ground. Probably an exaggeration).

Oh, and Tomoe was also Yoshinaka’s concubine.

AND…Yoshinaka also had a legal wife, Yamabuki, as well as probably another concubine, Aoi.


Did the women get along? How did Tomoe become a warrior? What did the other women think of her role?

You can see why I had to write about Tomoe.

I did a lot of research, but most of the English language books on the subject didn’t have all the info I needed. I reached out to the folks at the Samurai Archives. Randy Schadel (aka “jidaigeki legend”); and Dr. Ayame Chiba, a member of the Minami-ku (Kyoto) Historical Reenactment Society) read an early draft and pointed out errors and made a lot of great suggestions (I’m thanking them in my acknowledgements, too, of course).

One of the most important things Randy told me is that “samurai” actually means male warrior, so you can’t say “female samurai.” The term is, “onnamusha,” or “woman warrior.” For simplicity, I’ll probably just say female samurai so people know what I’m talking about, but explain the distinction later.

Translating the life of a 12th century warrior woman into modern day women’s fiction proved challenging. Life then, as Thomas Hobbes would say several centuries later, was, “Nasty, brutish, and short.”

Ultimately, I decided to excerpt Tomoe’s story into my contemporary story, sort of like I did with the fiction “American Housewife book” in How to Be an American Housewife. Each samurai section is no more than 5 pages and thematically informs the modern day story.

But although I’m not a “historical” author, I couldn’t bear to leave the rest of Tomoe on the cutting room.

So I took all my historical sections and made them into a separate book, which will be available as a supplemental e-book when SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW publishes.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

3 thoughts on “Forgotten Samurai Women

  1. My son has been married to his Japanese wife for 30 years. They have lived in a suburb of Tokyo for almost that long. When they were first married, she was a sweet, condescending, typical Japanese wife. However, when nobody was around, and once I happened to be around when nobody else was, I heard her issuing orders to my son. She sounded like a drill sergeant. It was some time after that, that she mentioned that she was samurai, descended from a samurai family. That must be why she was able to sound like a drill sergeant. She does not wield a sword, but her tongue is definitely samurai………..

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