The Female Leader and Strategist named Myōrinni

Today’s article features the tale about a female warrior name of Myōrinni ( 妙林尼 ), who lived during the frantic Sengoku period in the 1500s. Hailing from northern Kyūshū, she earned merits by defending her clan’s homeland at a time when it was in danger of being taken over by an invading force. In this article, we’ll look into what is known about Myorinni’s past, the events she took part in, and how she is remembered in present day.

One thing worth mentioning is that the records of Myōrinni are, like many other women during ancient Japan, not as well documented as her male counterparts. A few sources that do mention her and her acts of bravery include ” Ōtomo Kōhaiki” (大友興廃記, Rise & Fall of the Ōtomo Family), and “Ryōbunki” (両豊記, Bungo Province: Before & After). It is very difficult to come across the official sources, but fortunately there are a good number of Japanese websites that cover her story. Here’s a few sites that were helpful in writing this article:


Looking into Myōrinni’s past, we learn that there’s not much recorded prior to her becoming a renown female warrior and leader. There are uncertainties regarding her birth father, for it is either she was the daughter of Hayashi Sakyonosuke (林左京亮 ), a Shintō priest at Oe Shrine, or Niu Kojiro Masatoshi (丹生小次郎正敏), a nationalist who specialized in a mining business. This has not been definitively confirmed. Who her mom was is also a mystery. Another mystery is her original name, which is unknown to this day; the name “Myōrinni” is a Buddhist name she took after becoming a nun. Variants of this name includes “Yoshioka Myōrin” and “Yoshioka Rinko”, with Yoshioka (吉岡) being the family name she married into.

A statue in Oita City, in honor of Myōrinni. From Wikipedia.

Why is there so little background info? A common reason behind this is because of how record-keeping were handled in the past. For instance, when it came down maintaining a family line’s genealogy chart, generally boys’ names were recorded, while girls were simply identified as “woman” or “daughter”. Women of a particular status usually associated with the Imperial court, held power such as land, or took part in an important or well-documented event would then have their names and background stories recorded in journals or diaries. You can say for half of her life, Myōrinni lived a simple life where who she was and her roots were not so significant enough where anyone needed to write it down.

Her story as a warrior, as far as we can tell, begins at a time when her husband, Yoshioka Akioka (吉岡鑑興), who was a retainer for the Ōtomo clan (大友家), and land owner of Takada villa (高田庄 Takada jō), Tsurusaki castle (鶴崎城, Tsurusaki jō), and Chitose castle (千歳城, Chitose jō). Their land was in the north-eastern part of Bungo Province (豊後の国, Bungo no kuni) located in Kyūshū, which was an island in the south-western part of Japan. They also had a son named Yoshioka Munemasu (吉岡統増), who was old enough to serve the Ōtomo clan as he helped manage Tsurusaki castle. In terms of her appearance, there is not much to go by during her youth to the time she was married to Akioka. However, there is much depiction of her later on wearing your typical Buddhist attire, which includes an iconic shawl and simple robes.


The Yoshioka clan was a prominent one, as they were descendants of the elite Ōtomo family. They were also involved in the governance of their parent clan thanks to Akioka’s father, Yoshioka Nagamasu (吉岡長増). Along with the Ōtomo family having significant power in their own rights, they were also retainers to the current shogun of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the time, Kyūshū was divided into two, with Ōtomo clan having control of the northern half, and the Shimazu clan, land owners of Satsuma Province (present-day western part of Kagoshima Prefecture) further south west, controlling the southern half. As like many clans that sought more power through expansion, the Shimazu clan was extending their reach little by little by acquiring more territories in Kyushu, as they made their way towards the north. This includes a particular area called Hyūga Province (日向の国, Hyūga no kuni, which is present-day Miyazaki Prefecture).

In the 9th month of 1578, 21st successor Ōtomo Yoshishige commanded an army in an attempt to regain Hyūga from Shimazu’s clutches. At the time, Shimazu Yoshihiza was occupying Taka castle (高城, Taka jō) in Takagigawa no Hara (高城川原), Hyūga Prefecture with his own force. Both armies would clash head-on, which would lead to the “Battle at Takagigawa” (高城川の合戦, Takagigawa no Gassen). At first, the Ōtomo force had the upper hand, and were gaining ground against the opposition as they tried to overtake the castle. However, in the 11th month of the same year, Yoshihiza devised a strategy where his army would unexpectedly divide and surround the Ōtomo force from the east and west. Doing so caused them to flee towards Mimi river (耳川, Mimi kawa), where many soldiers including top commanders on the Ōtomo side had drowned as they tried to fend against the overwhelming odds. This triumphant victory for the Shimazu clan had this incident called “Battle at Mimi river” (耳川の戦い, Mimikawa no Tatakai). Akioka, Myōrinni’s husband, was also one of those who had died during this. Upon learning about the death of her husband, Myōrinni decided to retire herself to Buddhism. It was at this time she took up her Buddhist name, and was from this point on was recorded as so.

Facing a major victory, this boosted the morale of the Shimazu army, as they continued to make their way up north of Kyūshū, ambitious in taking over the region completely. On the other hand, things didn’t look to good for the governance of Ōtomo clan, as they lost some key members. In fear, the Ōtomo clan were able acquire aide from their master, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Reinforcements were sent to help safeguard points they still had control over, but they too failed to suppress the invaders’ northern expansion. With nothing to stop them, the Shimazu force made their way to Ōtomo Yoshishige’s mainstay, Niujima castle (丹生島城, Nuijima jo).


Munemasu, along with the younger soldiers, left Tsurusaki castle to provide aid to the Ōtomo clan by preparing fortification at Usuki castle (臼杵城, Usuki jō), leaving his mother, children, women, and older soldiers behind. Myōrinni was concerned about the safety of everyone who remained at the castle, for it was possible that the invading Shimazu clan would target them as well. Not wanting to give in to the idea of sitting idly just to surrender when the time came, she devised countermeasures to outlast a possible siege. She evaluated the castle’s strong points, as there were plenty; Tsurusaki castle was situated between bodies of water to the east, west and north, providing it natural defenses that made it too difficult for an invading army to attack in these areas. She had everyone at the castle help with setting up defensive measures to Tsurusaki castle, which included digging pits in the field as traps, and setting up makeshift alarms called naruko (鳴子, small hollowed bamboo pieces strung to a wooden board by a rope) to prevent potential infiltration attempts. Myōrinn also had everyone with no combat experience train how to use matchlock guns in order to fire at the enemies from a distance within the safety of the castle.  

In 1586, Shimazu Yoshihiza set forward a two-prong assault, one on Usuki castle where the Ōtomo army set up fortification, and another towards Tsurusaki castle, where Myōrinni and her makeshift force were preparing their defenses. It is stated that Yoshihiza sent retainers such as Ijūin Mimasaka-no-kami Hideo, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, and Shiraha Suou-no-kami Shigemasa, along with 3000 troops, to storm Tsurusaki castle. The Shimazu force could only approach from the south, which made it perfect for Myōrinni’s defensive plans to go into effect.

While the invaders charged with what can be considered unmatched might, they fell prey to the many pitfalls cleverly designed in the southern path, while the naruko alarms made it easy to pinpoint where the soldiers were as the battle-inexperienced civilians released volleys of shots from their guns and stopping them in their tracks. The Shimazu force apparently made 16 attempts to storming the castle, but each time was the same as before, which them being forced back by the near-impregnable defense Myōrinni and her militia were maintaining.


Despite the successful defensive play, Myōrinni was faced with an impending issue. Tsurusaki’s food rations were heavily depleted, while many of the inhabitants were becoming fatigued from the many assaults that came towards the castle. On top of this, despite successfully halting a possible invasion 16 times, it doesn’t look like the Shimazu force was ready to give up. The invaders then sent a message to Myōrinni, stating that if she allowed the gates of Tsurusaki castle to be open so that they can claim the castle peacefully, they will ensure safety to her and the inhabitants. Thinking that the safety of her people present was top priority than to risk their lives and fail in a battle they cannot outlast, she agreed to the terms. However, what the Shimazu force didn’t realized that this was a mere ploy, and that Myōrinni was scheming on how to use the situation to her benefit.

Tsurusaki castle’s gates were opened, permitting entry to the 3 Shimazu generals and their troops, while Myōrinni and the others were allowed to reside in the lower level  of the castle. For several nights, Myōrinni and several of the women in her group entertained their new guests as they feasts by serving them alcohol and the like. This allowed them to get closer to them. She noticed that one of the generals, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, became particularly fond of her, and was developing feelings for her. Myōrinni decided to keep this relation with him, and use it at the right moment to her advantage.

The Shimazu force were successful in extending their reach into Hyūga province, and invading into the lands of the Yoshioka and Ōtomo family. With much of the Ōtomo force held up in Usuki castle, they needed more help in order to contend with the large Satsuma army. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi amassed a very large army¹, which he set out to reclaim Kyūshū. Suspecting that the Toyotomi force would bring the battle straight to Kyushu to drive them out, Shimazu Yoshihiza had ordered his troops who occupied different points in Kyushu to concentrate their power in Hyūga Province. This included the 3 generals who held Tsurusaki castle.

Fumitsuna, worried about Myōrinni’s safety as the impending war loomed over them, suggested to her that she move to Satsuma Province. This way, in case the Satsuma force had lost, she wouldn’t be caught and punished for being a traitor. Myōrinni happily obliged², but not for the reason Fumitsuna believed. That night, after getting Fumitsuna drunk & wasted, she quickly wrote a letter and had it delivered to the 50 retainers of the Yoshioka clan³, which included a Tokumaru Shikibe (徳丸式部) and his family, Mukaishin Uemon (向新右衛門), and the Nakamura Shinsuke brothers (中村新助兄弟). This letter served as a declaration that they were to prepare for war against the Shimazu force.


As the 3 generals left Tsurusaki castle with their troops as they moved southward towards Hyūga Province, they were ambushed on their way by a small army of Yoshioka retainers. This clash took place near Otozu-river (乙津川, Otozu-gawa), with the Shimazu force caught with their backs to the river. This skirmish is known as “Battle at Terajihama (寺司浜の戦い, Terajihama no tatakai), as well as “Battle at Otozu-river” (乙津川の戦い, Otozu-gawa no tatakai). The 3 generals and their troops were defeated woefully, with 2 of them dying in battle. Although Fumitsuna suffered many wounds from arrows rained upon him and his troops, he still managed to survive long enough to escape to Hyūga Province. However, he would shortly pass away from his fatal wounds.

In the Yoshioka accounts, it is written that during this battle, the Yoshioka clan personally took down the 3 Shimazu generals, along with 300 of their soldiers. On top of this, Myōrinni is mentioned to have participated as well, and took the heads of 63 enemy soldiers. As a sign of her loyalty and dedication, she had those heads sent to Ōotomo Yoshishige, who was at the time at Niujima castle. She received much praise for her efforts. As for the loses on the Shimazu side, they suffered a heavy death toll during the battle. As a means to put the lost soldiers to rest, a burial site was created near Terajihama called “Sennin Zuka” (千人塚).

Word spread about the Yoshioka’s success, especially about Myōrinni’s impressive feat in organizing their successful battle at Terajihama. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was also informed, who then requested that Myōrinni come to Ōsaka castle in person and be bestowed honors. However, Myōrinni had no interest in this, and humbly turned this down. Instead, she merely asked that she keeps her late husband’s keepsake sword as a reward for fulfilling the role as castle lord while her son was supporting the Ōtomo clan, and assisting in defeating the Shimazu clan from northern Kyūshū, which was motivated by acts of revenge for her late husband.


After these events, there is no more word about Myōrinni. It is thought that, as a Buddhist, she removed herself from the political life the Yoshioka clan were involved with, and went into seclusion to live the remainder of her life in peace. Today, a statue honoring the legacy of Myōrinni can be seen in Tsurusaki Ward⁴ of Oita City, Oita Prefecture. She is even elevated to the level of a saint, where some establishments in Oita City sell omamori (御守り, talisman) that represent her.

The official website for Oita City has several publications that feature Myōrinni. The following is one of them, which features her (circled in red) amongst other historical figures whom are considered heroes of northern Kyūshū. From City of Oita Offical Website.

While she has considerable fame especially in what can be considered her hometown, there is still much mystery that surround Myōrinni as a whole. For example, it seems that just as sudden as she makes her appearance during the Ōtomo family’s war against the Shimazu force, her story ends just as abrupt once her role is done. There are no clear details about she lives the rest of her life. In terms of her own combat experience, we don’t get any info on that either. Yet, from little descriptions we are told that she designed the defensive measures for Tsurusaki castle, and had all the residents there train for combat, especially with muskets. In her own rights, it is possible that prior to the events between the Ōtomo family and the Satsuma army, Myōrinni may have learned much about warfare and worked closely to her late husband. Or, she may have learned about combat even before marriage. The latter is a stretch, as usually women of a military family can gain such access to combative training.

While she is admired by her cleverness and commitment in freeing her land, we must also wonder if this was truly a one-woman show. It is not unusual for leaders to discuss & plan with others, such as a strategist. However, in Myōrinni’s case there is no mention of her working closely with anyone. It is possible that she spoke with, and was assisted by, a few of the older soldiers that were in her party. It would make sense, especially to have them help train the residence to be battle ready. Alas, as they remain nameless in the original sources, their involvement in the battles also go unmentioned. Lastly, accounts mention how she beheaded 63 soldiers from the Shimazu army. How did she go about doing this? During the battle at Terajihama? Or afterwards, on captured enemy troops? If she did participate in the skirmish, did she do so with her husband’s sword, a matchlock gun, or a naginata? It is a shame that these details were left out, but it is also not unusual. In fact, it is pretty common to find pinpoint details regarding what took place during battles for many important figures.


The bravery and strategic genius of Myōrinni is quite impressive, as it illustrates how well-formulated plans can foil even the largest of armies. Her story has been covered over the years, both in novels and historical programming in Japanese, which helps to keep her legacy going even in modern times. Here’s hoping this article continues this trend, as it serves to introduce Myōrinni’s story to a western audience.

1) One of the figures given for Hideyoshi’s troop support is 200,000. War journals of old are known to inflate the size of armies as a means to illustrate that they were large. Thus, this figure is most likely an exaggerated number, and should be much lower.

2) There is another version of this, where Myōrinni initiated the conversation about accompanying Fumitsuna back to Satsuma Province.

3) These retainers are related to the Yoshioka-owned Takada Manor, and most likely reside there. It’s possible that this is where they were when the letter was delivered.

4) Former grounds of Tsurusaki castle.

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