The hidden lives of Samurai women

Samurai women in early Japan were cloistered, unseen figures - but it is a mistake to underestimate their importance.

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Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the "47 loyal ronin." Print by Kuniyoshi, from the series Seichi Gishin Den, 1848.

When Hirata Orise followed her husband into exile in 1841, she discovered just how constrained the life of a samurai woman could be. Born the daughter of a tofu maker in a provincial town, she had moved to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1818 to marry Hirata Atsutane, then an up-and-coming scholar and teacher of Japan studies. She enjoyed life in Edo where she participated in drinking bouts with relatives and friends or took Atsutane’s grandchildren on excursions to temples and to view the cherry blossoms. When the couple moved to Atsutane’s hometown of Akita in the remote northeast, they lived with his samurai relatives while waiting for the domain to give him an appointment with samurai rank and status. As Orise complained in a letter to her stepdaughter, Atsutane’s sister warned her that she was not to go out of the family’s compound unnecessarily. She had a servant; he was to do the shopping even though he seldom got what she wanted. Even after she and Atsutane moved into quarters of their own, she still had to remain discreetly indoors.

The change in Orise’s circumstances points to a major difference between women born or inducted into samurai households and commoner women. There were other differences, of course, and in order to learn about samurai women’s lives, it is important to place them in the context of women’s lives during Japan’s early modern period more generally. It is also important to evaluate their contributions to maintaining the samurai class that dominated this society. Even the staunchest, most heroic warrior had a mother, a wife, and perhaps even daughters. Without women, the samurai as a social status would have ceased to exist. Without a wife, no individual samurai could constitute himself as a full-fledged member of his retainer band. Furthermore, when talking about samurai women, it is worth emphasising that they participated in the ethos of what it meant to be samurai. That is to say, they were expected to live by a code for conduct analogous to that of their menfolk.

Orise went into exile in Akita not for anything she had done, but because her husband Atsutane had for unspecified reasons incurred the shogun’s displeasure. Rather than send him off by himself, with no one to cook his food, tend to his clothes, write letters on his behalf, or share his hardships and triumphs, Orise accompanied him because in this society, men and women were interdependent, as I will explain below. The letters that she wrote to the rest of the family left in Edo provide important insights into her activities and thus help illustrate some of the similarities and differences between samurai and commoner women. I also want to focus on the importance of succession to samurai households and women’s roles in maintaining it.

Orise died in 1846, twenty-two years before the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate that ended Japan’s early modern period. During the brief civil war of 1868, samurai women and men found themselves in combat for the first time since the early 17th century. Much had changed in the intervening 250 years, and one way to illuminate those changes is to explore what women did.

Whether at the highest ranks of premodern society or the lowest, men needed women and women needed men. There are exceptions, of course, primarily in religious establishments, but in such cases, same-sex groups replaced heterosexual couples. It is my understanding, however, that even in the mountain top monasteries of Koyasan, the monks relied on women living at the bottom of the mountain to wash and make their clothes. Other examples of same-sex groups include blind entertainers, either female [goze] or male [zato].

For commoner husbands and wives, the social ideal was to live together in a symbiotic relationship, working in concert like two wheels to a cart, to use a common expression of the time. In the case of farm households, women performed crucial roles. Only their fingers were delicate enough to handle tender little seedlings when rice was transplanted, so men carried the seedlings to the rice paddies and offered encouragement by beating drums while women performed the back-breaking work of sticking the plants in the mud. While the plants were growing, women and men did the weeding. Women raised silkworms and spun silk thread, they carded cotton and spun cotton thread, and they picked tea leaves.

At harvest time they helped thresh the grain, and when at the new year men pounded rice into cakes (mochi), women ducked and darted, thrusting their hands into the mortar to turn the cake between each blow of the mallet. In fishing villages they dived for shellfish. In merchants’ houses as well, women ran the back of the house, especially the kitchen, while their husbands managed the front. Without both a man and a woman in the house, it would not survive.

The situation was different for the samurai, at least in theory. Men performed their duties not at home but at the lord’s castle or some other institutional venue. They received a stipend based on hereditary status as a warrior that had nothing to do with women. The women born into samurai households needed men for income and protection, if nothing else. But aside from procreation, did samurai men need women? For the poorest samurai, it was said that if they had a servant, they could not afford a wife, and vice versa, suggesting that to a certain extent, women were replaceable. So why bother with women beyond their role as what was dismissively defined as ‘borrowed wombs’?

There are two ways to answer this question, one based on the reality of samurai lives, the other based on the organisation of the samurai household. Employment opportunities for samurai men hardly kept most of them busy, leaving them with plenty of time to participate in childcare, educate their sons, even cook and clean or do repairs around the house. Many samurai relied on side-employments, making cricket cages, for example, to supplement their meagre stipends, and women too contributed to the family’s income by making paper hair ties, taking in sewing, or doing other odd jobs. Samurai women in the Mito domain did spinning and weaving, for their family and for hire. Atsutane, for example, did much of his work at home, writing treatises, trying to get his books published, or lecturing to his students. He also visited important daimyo compounds in Edo hoping for recognition as a scholar and a samurai. While he was out, and before he adopted a son-in-law to marry his daughter, Orise had to stay home to guard the house and entertain any visitors who might show up. In addition, she was expected to keep the family diary that recorded Atsutane’s activities and visitors, a duty that she continued to perform in Akita.

The organisation of the samurai household made women necessary. The genealogies kept by the domains listed each member of the retainer band as the head of a household. Although these households were patrilineal, the constitution of a household required that the wife be listed as well, usually in terms of whose daughter she was. The presence of women in these genealogies thus suggests that women played a crucial role in building alliances between households. Samurai of all ranks had to get permission to marry in order to ensure the cohesion of the retainer band, to guard against collusion, and to guarantee that the betrothed couple came from households of more or less equal status. Samurai were supposed to marry other samurai. If a man wanted to marry a non-samurai woman, she had to be adopted into another samurai family, preferably one from the same domain, before the marriage could take place. When Atsutane married Orise, he was only the fourth son of a samurai and had no official rank and status. Even so, before he married her, he had her adopted by his patron, a wealthy and prominent village official, lest her status as the daughter of a mere tofu maker reflect badly on his position and prospects.

Being the head of a household and marriage went together. If any man, samurai or commoner, did not have his own household or the possibility of succeeding to one, he could not get married. In a society that practised primogeniture, this was a particular problem for younger sons. One reason Atsutane had fled Akita at the age of nineteen was because he had little prospect of being anything more than a burden to his family without getting married. If a man did head a household, having a wife gave him stature in his community as a man with adult responsibilities. If we remember the case of the poor samurai with a servant and no wife, he lacked the kind of access to a woman that would have brought him respect. Or to put it another way, the ranking of men in this society pivoted on their access to women and the differential distribution of their access to women. Men at the top, the shogun, the daimyo, and their highest-ranking samurai retainers, had not only wives but also female attendants and concubines. Men at the bottom had a hard time even getting a wife.

Despite their differences in status, non-samurai women and samurai women performed many of the same activities. In addition to the contributions to subsistence mentioned above, women did the sewing for the household. In order to wash a kimono, for example, it had to be taken apart, the pieces washed, stretched on boards to dry, and then stitched back together. Clothes also had to be made and mended; another woman’s chore. When Orise went to Akita, she consulted with Atsutane’s sister regarding appropriate garb for his ceremonial appearances at the castle and then fashioned suitable items herself or asked her stepdaughter in Edo to procure them. Women prepared food, or at least supervised its preparation. Even when the relatives in Akita sent gifts of food, Orise cooked for Atsutane because he preferred the way she seasoned his dishes. Women were responsible for kin work — for keeping in touch with family members. Orise corresponded with the family left behind in Edo; she spent hours with Atsutane’s relatives in Akita.

While all women participated in similar activities to keep their families going, appearance and training distinguished samurai woman from commoners. In 1854, the woodblock artist Utagawa Yoshitora created an illustration that shows an idealised representation of women of various status, from farmwomen to a samurai woman. On the left, he depicts two women carrying a bucket of water. They have round faces with prominent features. Their legs and arms are bare. The woman in the centre is more decorously attired with an elaborate hairstyle, and you can barely see one foot, clad in a sock, poking out below her robe. The woman to the right discreetly covers her mouth, and you can see neither her hands nor her feet. This image also speaks to their relative visibility. Farmwomen lived and worked outdoors. Townswomen worked inside but went shopping and went on excursions. Samurai women were expected to remain indoors, and the higher in rank, the less visible they were.

On the rare occasions when samurai women left their house, they never went out alone. Even samurai men always appeared in public with a retainer; for anyone to be by himself invited suspicion. If the woman was of high enough rank, she rode in a palanquin with at least one attendant following along behind. Suitable destinations included twice yearly visits to a woman’s natal parents, pilgrimages to local shrines, temples, and graves, plus attendance at the weddings and funerals of relatives. Samurai women were discouraged from going to the theatre or any other place of entertainment and, as we saw in Orise’s case, they were not to go shopping. Even though they rarely appeared in public, samurai women were expected to practise self-cultivation. Women in provincial castle towns, especially in northeastern Japan, had little opportunity to learn more than sewing, household management, etiquette and deportment, a side-employment or two, and the oral traditions of their domain. Many of them had no access to books. One request that Orise made of her stepdaughter was to send textbooks suitable for girls because none were available in Akita. Women who lived in western Japan or closer to urban centres had more options. In addition to the skills listed above, they might learn how to write poetry, how to distinguish different kinds of incense, how to play the koto or some other instrument, or how to deploy the naginata – a spear with a curved blade, designed especially for women to use in protecting their house and defending their honour. In theory, every samurai woman learned how to use naginata and daggers for self-defence; in practice I am not at all certain that such was the case. A woman from Mito stated that by the early 19th century, few women in her domain studied the martial arts. Women were more likely to own a naginata than have the ability to use it. Aizu, a northern domain, is one of the few places where it is evident that at least some women trained with this weapon.

Despite their seclusion, samurai women played an important role in building the retainer band’s social cohesion. Twice each year, families exchanged gifts with relatives and patrons. Women kept track of these exchanges and prepared the gifts, either wrapping them in paper or leaves or finding a suitable object on which they could be displayed. In addition, close relatives frequently exchanged items on a more informal basis. In her letters to her stepdaughter, Orise always asked for clothing, books, and food that she could then distribute to Atsutane’s Akita relatives, and she often reported how pleased the recipients had been.

In addition to managing gift exchanges, samurai women had other social obligations. In an era before telephones, people often dropped by unexpectedly, whenever their schedule permitted without regard for host’s convenience. As the person left in charge of the household while her husband was at work, a samurai wife had to entertain his friends when they came to visit by setting out food and making conversation. Bored and lonely as she was in Akita without her family around her, Orise greatly appreciated these opportunities to socialise.

All women in Tokugawa society were expected to conform to the dictates of filial piety, but this had special meaning for a samurai wife. In a samurai household, the husband might spend years away from home in attendance on his lord on the biannual trips to Edo. (Every daimyo was required to spend half of his time in Edo in service to the shogun and half of his time in his domain overseeing its administration.) The wife stayed back in the domain to raise any children the couple might have and also to take care of her mother-in-law and father-in-law – for women, filial piety meant that they were expected to cherish their husband’s parents. When the noted writer Tadano Makuzu married a man from Sendai, she had to move there to stay with his mother even though he visited his home town only rarely. Having lived in Edo all of her life, she hated what she saw as a provincial backwater.

As an extension of filial piety, a wife, particularly a samurai wife, had responsibility for performing rituals to her husband’s ancestors. In the shogun’s castle in Edo, the Buddhist altar containing ancestral tablets was located in a room right next to the quarters for the shogun’s wife, putting it under her protection. Every morning the shogun and his wife prayed before it together. Wives performed similar rituals on a smaller scale in ordinary samurai households. Since only the wife had the authority to perform these rituals and protect the tablets, this was one activity that affirmed her position above the concubines.

Because she had responsibility for her husband’s household, a wife had the right to speak in her husband’s name when he was absent, and a widow had the right to speak for her deceased spouse. In 1190, Hojo Masako used her status as the widow of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the lord of Kamakura and the founder of Japan’s first military regime, to advance Hojo interests, even going so far as to acquiesce in the murder of her sons when they threatened Hojo rule. In the Tokugawa period, the eighth shogun Yoshimune remained profoundly grateful to the sixth shogun’s widow for supporting his candidacy to be adopted as the next shogun despite not being from the main Tokugawa line. In ordinary samurai households, women might well play a major role in finding and getting approval for their husband’s heir, as I explain at greater length below.

Despite the elaborate preparations and ceremonies that attended a samurai wedding, plus the common assumption that a woman should no more have two husbands than a man should serve two lords, samurai women might divorce and remarry, or remarry after their husband’s death. Senhime, the first Tokugawa shogun’s eldest granddaughter, found herself married twice for political reasons. And in her autobiography, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto describes how a bride came to marry her brother, only to discover on her wedding day that he had been disowned for refusing to accept her instead of the woman he loved. The bride remained in the Inagaki household until Etsu’s mother arranged a good marriage for her. This practice stands in stark contrast to China and Korea where respectable women, even those who had merely been engaged, refused to consider remarriage.

When a samurai man married, his wife and his mother would likely not be the only women in his household. In addition there would be servants. In many households, the line between servant and concubine fluctuated, with a servant who bore the master’s child possibly being upgraded to concubine to keep around, possibly being sent home to marry someone else when her term of service was up. In the Hirata family, Atsutane’s grandson Nobutane married a woman who proved incapable of bearing a healthy child. Because she suited the family in every other way, he took a concubine and fathered a daughter by her. Later, after he had moved to the new capital of Tokyo while his parents, his wife, his concubine, and her child remained in Kyoto, his students urged him to hire a servant. In one letter to his mother, he mentioned that the servant was not pregnant, leaving it unstated that she might well have been. The child of his previous concubine stayed with his family, and was raised as his wife’s child.

During the early modern period, most samurai households practised primogeniture, succession by eldest son. However, if a concubine had borne a man’s eldest son and a wife later bore another one, then the wife’s son would become the first in line to succeed his father.

Often enough a samurai couple would end up with no sons. This is what happened with Nobutane and his wife. Rather than let the family line die out, with no one to care for the ancestral graves or perform memorial services, let alone inherit the family’s status and stipend, the family would turn to adoption. If there were a daughter, then a son-in- law would be adopted to marry her. This is what the Hirata family did, though not for many years after Nobutane died. If the family had no children, then both a daughter and a son would be adopted, usually at an age old enough for the parents to know what sort of people they were getting. As with marriage, samurai adoptions had to be approved by the domain’s authorities before they could become official, and both partners had to come from samurai stock. Wives played a crucial role in finding suitable adoptees, scouring their relatives’ families, negotiating with go-betweens, and if their husband was already deceased, deciding in his name on a suitable candidate or candidates, sometimes repeatedly if the adoptee died without issue. In the interval between the husband’s death and the conclusion of a successful adoption, the wife’s presence provided essential continuity.

The civil war of 1868, in particular the conflict that erupted in Aizu, provides a clear picture of the tension between what samurai women perceived as honourable and what their menfolk perceived as honourable. In this war, the domain’s samurai women had four options. Some fled with their children either to a nearby domain or isolated mountain shacks. Some went into the castle with their menfolk to withstand the siege from there. Some tried to fight in defence of the domain outside the castle. Many committed suicide. Here we will examine those who went into the castle, fought outside, or committed suicide.

Seeking shelter in the castle was by no means an obvious choice. When a castle is under siege, every grain of rice can be precious. Women thus had to justify their presence. In the case of Aizu, the domain lord’s sister, Teruhime, moved into the castle to demonstrate her determination to die with the defenders. At a time when the domain’s survival was on the line, she showed that women could not stand idly by. The women inside the castle made cartridges, cooked whatever food was available, tended to the wounded, and tried to put out cannon balls before they started a fire, at considerable risk to themselves. A number of women were killed by explosives or by enemy gunfire.

One woman who entered the castle was Yamamoto Yae. She was the daughter of a gunnery instructor, and she had trained in the use of the Spencer carbine. Her brother had died in an earlier battle, so when she went into the castle, she wore some of his clothing and carried as many weapons as she could. Feeling that she had become him and must kill his enemies, she had resolved to fight so long as she had life for the sake of her lord and for the sake of her younger brother. Other women too carried weapons into the castle, hoping to be killed honourably while striking the enemy. However, they were never allowed to fight because to put women into battle would have reflected badly on their lord’s name. Yae later married Niijima Jo, a Christian and the founder of Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Another group of armed women arrived at the castle gates after they had shut. These women went instead to a bridge on the city’s outskirts where Aizu samurai were trying to hold off a detachment from the imperial army. There they tried to join the fight with their naginata. As one woman recalled: ‘From the beginning men had opposed sending our women’s brigade to the front because it would be shameful for it to appear that Aizu was in such trouble that it had to rely on women.’ One of the women, Nakano Takeko, was killed by an enemy bullet, and her sister risked death to retrieve her head, lest it fall into enemy hands. Today there is a statue of Takeko near the bridge erected in 1982.

Almost 200 women died fighting for Aizu; even more committed suicide. They had two reasons for the latter. First, they did not want their menfolk to worry about them when they should be focused on fighting for the domain. Second, they did not want to risk falling into enemy hands and being dishonoured by rape. For the sake of their family’s honour, and their own, they felt that they had no choice but to commit suicide. In the case of Shiba Goro’s family, this meant that all of the men in his family who had entered the castle to fight survived; all of the women perished. The imperial army forbade proper burials for Aizu dead because they were seen as traitors to the throne, and that included the women. The house elder, Saigo Tanamo, erected a simple stone hidden under a wooden shed to commemorate the 21 members of his household who died in this fashion, from his mother down to his youngest daughter, age two. In 1928, local custodians of Aizu history erected a monument to the women who had died by their own hand.

Compared to China or Europe, Japan’s history contains few accounts of women warriors. In the 12th-century battles between the Taira and the Minamoto immortalised in the epic The Tale of the Heike, Tomoe Gozen fights alongside her lover, the defeated Minamoto no Yoshinaka, and tries to hold off the enemy forces while he seeks a place to commit suicide. She is depicted as beautiful, brave, skilled, and strong, but historians doubt whether she ever existed. During the century of civil war between 1467 and 1592, women occasionally appear in the historical record as camp followers. In his history of Japan, the Portuguese missionary Luis Frois recounts how women fought in the 1589 siege of Hondo castle, a Christian stronghold near Kumamoto in Kyushu. Having realised that the defence of the castle had exhausted their menfolk and enemy troops were preparing to breach the castle walls, the women cut their hair, put on helmets and armour, armed themselves with swords and spears, and attacked the enemy. Despite the ferocity of their assault, the castle eventually fell, leaving few survivors, male or female.

A century of desperate fighting marked by high casualties had battle hardened both the men and women who defended Hondo castle and its attackers, leaving little room for any rules of war or the niceties of honour. In contrast, the short civil war of 1868 followed 250 years of peace during which samurai had plenty of time to refine notions of duty, loyalty, filial piety, and what it meant to be a man or a woman. The actions taken by the women of Aizu and the response of Aizu men show just how different battlefield codes of conduct had become and how the character of battle had changed. In particular, they demonstrate a new tension surrounding notions of honour. The women who tried to fight saw the domain as an extension of the household. Duty-bound to defend their house, they were therefore duty-bound to defend the domain. Male samurai accepted the notion that women had an obligation to defend the household, but in this instance, at least, they did not see the domain as the household writ large. In comparison to the men in Hondo castle, Aizu samurai believed that only men should fight to defend the domain or the castle; for women to fight dishonoured men. In their eyes, and in the eyes of many women, for a samurai woman to defend her honour meant suicide.

This essay originally appeared under the title Samurai women in early modern Japan in Japan’s Part and Present: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminars, Axess Publishing, 2020.


Anne Walthall