Onna Bugeisha: Women and the Naginata

Women and their role as warriors in the history of Japan is an interesting topic I’d like to touch upon. There are many literature, plays, and artworks of onna bugeisha1, or female warriors in English, that portray their feats. Depending on the time period, onna bugeisha are said to have had their fair share of combat like their male counterparts, some in armor suited for the battlefield, and others in simple domestic wear. Women learn to use many types of weapons, according to their needs and the situation at hand. In an on-going series, I will discuss various topics related to onna bugeisha, from key figures to the martial systems they’ve specialized in. Today’s topic will start off with women and their ties with the weapon called the naginata2. This will briefly cover the historical periods where women became synonymous with the naginata, along with some truths and falsehoods that stemmed from this image.

An artwork called ” Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the “47 loyal ronin”” (誠忠義心傳:大星良雄内室石女). Ishi-jo is shown brandishing a naginata. Artist is Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and was made in 1848. From Wikipedia.


Onna bugeisha and their ties with the naginata is most recognized around Edo period (1603-1868), a time when the newly-established Tokugawa shogunate ushered in a time of peace after long periods of war. To ensure that no opposing factions or groups ever rose up to challenge the rule of the Tokugawa clan, all battlefield weapons were restricted from public possession and use. At the time, the naginata was considered a large battlefield weapon, consisting of a blade similar in length to a katana, which was mounted on a long, sturdy pole. Due to this, the naginata was subjected to strict regulations, such as “Naginata Naoshi”3. While many were converted into shorter-bladed swords, the knowledge of utilizing the naginata would soon be given a new route to stay viable during the more peaceful era that settled into most areas.

Families that have a military background were known as buke4, or warrior family. Members of these household were often trained in various combat arts, so to be able to protect themselves from danger, as well as to maintain the family’s martial tradition. In one instance, to ensure that homes and mansions were protected from theft and invasions, military and martial specialists trained their wives, daughters, and young women in how to wield the naginata. The techniques learned were initially from those used on the battlefield, but modified so to be adaptable for use indoors against armorless opponents. This became the norm over the years as the naginata became a favorite among women as a means for self defense due to its reach advantage against the katana, and balance due to having a long shaft. This likeness prompted the label “Onna Naginata”5, or “Women’s Naginata”.

Some martial systems that have naginata techniques/curriculum modified them for use by women; whereas the original techniques required wide open space for larger swings, naginata used by women were more smaller and concise for use indoors. Through this developed entirely new systems for the naginata, complete with their own lineage. Some of these lineages are even headed by female headmasters, which is a rarity throughout Japan’s martial history. An example of this is Youshin ryu Naginatajutsu, which started around 1620s as a means of self defense for the female residents living in a castle in Yanagawa Domain6. Youshin ryu Naginatajutsu is currently headed by Koyama Takako, who continues to actively maintain this system and ensures that quality training is available to female practitioners.

As time went on, Onna Naginata went through some transformations. For starters, during the Meiji period, a competitive version of naginata was developed alongside gekiken (a sword system using a shinai and protective gear predating modern kendo), and displayed in many gekiken competitions around Japan. Women participated using wooden naginata, and would often pit their skills against men doing gekiken. An example is Chiba Sanako, the daughter of Chiba Sadakichi Taira no Masamichi, who ran the Chiba Dojo belonging to Hokushin Itto ryu Hyoho. Sanako was not only a licensed master of Hokushin Itto ryu Kodachijutsu, but was also very proficient with the naginata. It is said that she had defeated every challenger that stepped foot into the Chiba Dojo located in Fukagawa, Tokyo.


A portrayal of Chiba Sanako with a wooden naginata dueling with a gekiken practitioner. From the 3-panel woodblock print called “Chiba Gekikenkai (千葉撃剣会) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi in 1873(?). To see the entire print, please visit Hokushin Itto ryu Hyoho’s website here.

Next, women’s naginatajutsu further developed from Meiji period (1868-1912) onward as a kyougi budo7, or a sports-centric martial art. Under kyougi budo, there are many rules that dictate both movements and areas to strike. This type of naginatajutsu became the standard, and was introduced to certain schools as a physical education class for young women not only to train their bodies, but to learn discipline and refine their spirit. Sonobe Hideo (4/18/1870-9/29/1963), the 15th lineage holder of Jikishinkage ryu Naginatajutsu, contributed to this. She took the role as instructor and taught naginatajutsu at several schools and institutions around Japan from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including Himejishihan Daigaku (later changed to Hyougoshihan Daigaku), Osaka Kyoiku Daigaku (Osaka Kyoiku University), and Gakushuin Joshi Daigaku (Gakuin Women’s College).

Onna Naginata continued to develop with the times, even after Japan’s defeat during WWII and the practice of martial arts was banned for some time. Stripping away most of its combat elements, naginatajutsu was still made available to women with the intention to be more for sports and health purposes. In modern times, it further evolved to fit under the standards of Zen Nihon Naginata Renmei, the organization that oversees all participating systems of naginatajutsu for both competition and forms nationwide. Now called Atarashii Naginata8, it is offered in high schools to female students, giving them the chance to learn naginatajutsu in clubs, and participate in tournaments against other schools. Primarily a bamboo naginata is used alongside with protective gear (consisting of a face guard, chest guard, padded gloves, and shin guards) during competition, which is often naginata versus naginata, or, in recent times, naginata user versus a kendo practitioner. Note that while Atarashii Naginata is still associated with young women, it has also been made available for young men to learn and compete in.


Now that the history onna bugeisha and their connection with the naginata has been briefly covered, let’s look at some points that will cover some of the truths and falsehoods that are associated with the image of women and the naginata.


A woodblock print of Tomoe Gozen (middle) battling Uchida Ieyoshi (left) during the Battle of Awazu in 1184. She is shown wielding a naginata while on horseback. Artist is Yoshuu Chikanobu, and was made in 1899. From Wikipedia.

1) Naginata is a women’s weapon
While there are evidence that leans towards this, primarily in the modern society of Japan today, it is not entirely true. In earlier times when wars were abundant and Japan wasn’t unified, male bushi, otherwise known as warriors, utilized the naginata a great deal. It was a heavy weapon that was effective against enemy troops and cavalry alike through its reach and large sweeping cuts. It wasn’t until Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and big battles were almost non-existent where the role of the naginata switched from a battlefield weapon to a self defense weapon. During this time, the katana was the primary weapon that the samurai took pride in, thus many male warriors focused their attention to kenjutsu. Since women were not allowed to carry a katana, they focused their energy into being proficient with other weapons, one being the naginata.

2) Naginatajutsu is designed for women
Again, not entirely false, but not quite true either. Onna Naginata, as it is labeled was designed for women due to some important points. For starters, the naginata used by women was shorter and lighter than the version men used on the battlefield, allowing for faster cuts and ease in manipulation. This type of naginata is often called a konaginata9. Women at the time wore long kimono that restricted them from taking wider stances for big swings, so they needed to learn how to move with the naginata taking smaller steps, and using agility with quick body turns that matched their normal wear to move accordingly. Naginatajutsu for men, often labeled “Otoko Naginata10“, still exists, and often retains techniques used for the battlefield against armored opponents. However, Otoko Naginata is not as popular or publicly documented in Japan. This is generally found in some kobudo11, such as Katori Shinto ryu, Shidare Yanagi ryu, and Kukishinden ryu.

3) Onna Bugeisha that had to go to battle did so with the naginata
This not only refers to actual female warriors in the past, but the general viewpoint of them that is now visible in pop culture. Contents that have a historical setting before Edo period tend to show these female warriors going to battle with a naginata. This can be seen in books, comics, and games. A big contribution to this image is ukiyoe12, or woodblock prints, that were commonplace during the 1700s to 1800s. Many ukiyoeshi13, or woodblock artists, often took a theme from society or history, and would paint them with a more romanticized flavor in order to make the visuals more appealing. Ukiyoe, while visually stunning, tend not to be accurate. Case in point, a famous female warrior by the name of Tomoe Gozen is depicted in ukiyoe. Decked in armor, she is a prime representative of a Japanese woman not only taking part in battles, but having the prowess to best men in mortal combat. One misconception is found in the actual weapons used in battle by her. In historical accounts,  it is said that during one of her last battles Tomoe was using a sword to duel and beat her opponents. However, in a ukiyoe by Yoshuu Chikanobu (shown above), the same scene is vividly recreated, but with Tomoe using a naginata instead. The change to the naginata may have been due to the current trend of women training in naginatajutsu at the time.


In closing, onna bugeisha made great strides in being a formidable force with the naginata. Women have demonstrated its effectiveness as a means of self defense, as well as utilized its superior reach in competitions. Even as Onna Naginata transformed from a combative art to a sports-centric system,  women continue to train in it with the same vigor as in the past. Hope you enjoyed today’s topic, and look forward to future posts on on female warriors!

1) 女武芸者

2) There are 2 ways of writing this in Japanese, which are 長刀 and 薙刀. The 1st one, an older version, stands for a ‘long, bladed weapon’. The 2nd one, more commonly used in recent times, stands for a ‘bladed weapon that mows down’. Both use the same pronunciation.

3) 薙刀直し. Naginata Naoshi was a movement where blades of many naginata were reforged and turned into shorter swords, usually in the style of a katana. Due to this, there are almost no naginata in existence dating back before the 1600s.

4) 武家

5) 女薙刀. Also called Josei Naginata (女性薙刀), which has the same meaning.

6) 柳河藩. Former domain during the Edo period in present Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu.

7) 競技武道

8) 新しい薙刀. This means “New Style of Naginata”.

9) 小薙刀

10) 男薙刀

11) 古武道

12) 浮世絵

13) 浮世絵師