Women Warriors

Women Warriors: Nakano Takeko

In every culture around the world, you’ll find stories of women who stood out for their bravery and courage. They are the women who went against tradition and did what they believed to be right. Women Warriors is a series that investigates the lives of Japanese women who forged their own destinies.

During the heyday of the samurai, women were assigned traditional roles of house keeping and cooking. The idea of them being fighters was frowned upon, with men being responsible for going off to war. But Nakano Takeko defied societal norms by taking up the role of a samurai and fighting during the Boshin War In the 19th century. Her story is one of bravery, defiance and tragedy.

Early life

Born in 1847 to an Aizu official called Nakano Heinai, Nakano grew up during a turbulent time in Japanese history. Her family were loyal to the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, which led to a complicated situation in later years.

During her childhood, Nakano excelled in martial arts, training under her teacher Akaoka Daisuke. She became skilled with a naginata, a traditional Japanese polearm wielded by onna-bugeisha (female samurai). Eventually, Nakano was adopted by her teacher and she worked with him as a martial arts instructor in the 1860s.

Going to war

In the mid-1860s, the Meiji imperial family wanted to gain power over the Tokugawa clan. Civil war broke out, with many young nobles and samurai wanting to end the shogunate’s policy of allowing westerners into the country.

Nakano wished to join the Aizu army and fight in favour of the Tokugawa but was banned from active duty because of her gender. So, she created her own army of female warriors called the Aizu Joshitai.

In 1868, the Tokugawa planned to surrender to the imperials, yet the people of Aizu refused to give in. This led to the battle of Aizu and Nakano led her army into battle, despite the imperials being instructed to hold their fire.

During the battle, it’s believed that Nakano killed around five soldiers before being fatally shot in the chest. Rather than let the enemy capture her as a trophy, she asked her sister Yuko to cut off her head. Nakano’s remains were taken to the Hokai Temple, which can be found in modern day Aizubange, Fukushima, and buried beneath a pine tree.

This is perhaps the most well-known picture of Nakano. But it is an unidentified onna-bugeisha who is often mistaken for Nakano.

An enduring legacy

In the modern day, Nakano is remembered for her courage and fighting prowess. A monument was erected in her honour at Hokai Temple, while her actions are commemorated at the annual Aizu Autumn Festival. Every year, young girls take part in a procession and wear hakama and shiro headbands in memory of Nakano and her army.

As an onna-bugeisha, Nakano remains one of the most courageous figures in Japanese history. Her fighting spirit lives on and remains a source of inspiration for many Japanese women.

Can you think of any Japanese women who deserve have their stories told?  

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10 thoughts on “Women Warriors: Nakano Takeko

  1. I’ve always wondered how much of Nakano Takeko’s story might be historical mythology. During her time, all women of higher social standing would have been armed (if discretely), and young women trained to wield the naginata in defense of the home. Allowing the formation of an independent female fighting-force was likely a response to the existential threat to the Aizu posed by the Imperial Army.

    Takeko and her peers weren’t actually recognized until the early 1920’s when Admiral Dewa Shigetō, of Aizu heritage, termed them the “Jōshitai” (娘子隊), or the “young (unmarried) women’s troops”. Shigetō was a member of the also commemorated “Byakkotai”, an Aizu youth reserve unit during the battle. At 12-years old, however, he wasn’t old enough to fight.

    Ironically, the more profound aspect of Takeko’s story to the Japanese psyche is that she was merely gunned-down. The Battle of Aizu during the Boshin War famously pitted a force built on older ideals of honor and loyalty against a power fundamentally derived from numerical and technological advantage. Even today, Nakano Takeko’s story speaks to the deep conflict felt by many Japanese between traditions of honor and modern utility.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the extra input! It’s always fascinating to hear more information on the stories of women like Takeko. The divide in mentalities between the older and younger generations of Japanese is interesting and if Takeko existed in the modern day she may very well have been a spokesperson for positive progression.

      Liked by 1 person

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