Art of War: Onna Bugeisha of Japan and the Ancient Female Warrior Culture

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Art of War: Onna Bugeisha of Japan and the Ancient Female Warrior Culture

Art of War: Onna Bugeisha of Japan and the Ancient Female Warrior Culture

The idea since ancient times that it was men solely who were engaged in war is so common that it has become somewhat of a cliché. The vision of heavily armed men has become so associated with the art of war that—despite the evidence throughout history of many female fighters, strategists and leaders—the association between women and war is still mostly seen as somewhat of a novelty even to this day.

Many stories of ancient female warriors are relegated to legends and folklores with minimal historical accounts attached to their lives, which leads to doubts on whether these women actually existed. The lives and exploits of notable warrior women in history such as Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, or Joan of Arc are mostly considered examples of exceptional personal valor instead of reflections of the societies in which they lived. 

However, a look into onna bugeisha (“women who practiced the art of war”) in Japan tells us that the culture of female warriors were, in fact, a more common occurrence than we know. The employment of women in warfare is generally caused by a society’s acknowledgement of women’s combat potential and willingness to utilize them in war. For this, that society needs to recognize the presence of a combat role that can be effectively filled by the women. Another factor is the appearance of circumstances which require complete mobilization of all members of a community – men and women. Onna bugeisha were women who were trained and fought as recognized combat components in their society rather than exceptions to their contemporary military arrangement.

Understanding Onna Bugeisha: The Real Women behind the War Chronicles

However, one cannot readily be informed of all this by relying on ancient chronicles alone. Chronicles of the ancient wars in Japan, much like those of ancient Greece and Rome, present many different kinds of male warriors such as the tragic hero, the warrior-courtier, the traitor, the coward and many others. On the other hand, women's roles in these tales are slight and set far from the battlefields.

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