Female Samurai (Painting #3 of 13) “Influential Women”

Female Samauri

Female Samurai
(circa 1900)
After 12th century Hangaku Gozen.

There are many theories surrounding the Meiji era (1868-1912) source material for this painting. The original black and white photo depicts a female member of the Taira clan, one of the most influential families during the Heian period in Japan (794-1185). This is distinguishable by the butterfly emblem displayed on the chest plate of her armor.

During Heian rule, the emperor bestowed the family name of Taira to ex-members of the imperial family. The Taira were eventually members of the clan forming the first samurai government in Japan. The Taira clan lost much of its influence after the Genpei War. This is not likely an image of an actual female samurai; some experts say it is a male kabuki actor dressed in costume, perhaps depicting Hangaku Gozen, a female warrior (onna-bugeisha) who was allied with the Taira clan. The style of armor she wears was popular during the Ninth century (designed to combat arrows, not bullets) and would have been worn for costume or ceremonial purposes at the turn of the twentieth century.

A defeat in battle, and the subsequent loss of her reputation, Hangaku Gozen was saved from committing seppuku (suicide), when a retainer of the shogun fell in love with her and persuaded her not to kill herself. Alternate stories declare she renounced waring and became a nun. One can not help but be struck by the similarities to sainted French combatant Joan of Arc.

The possibility also exist this was simply a female model posing for a souvenir photograph. These were common keepsakes for Western travelers visiting Japan for the first time when the shogun, Meiji, opened Japan to the west after the Portuguese missionaries had been expelled from its shores two hundred and fifty years prior. Photographs like this were included in volumes depicting historic characters from Japanese history.

Female Samurais were not an anomaly, on the contrary, there is a long tradition of Japanese women wielding the sword or naginata (wooden shaft with a curved blade on the end) to protect their family and property from rival clans while their male counterparts were absent from home during battles. Hangaku Gozen is legendary for her fierce courage, and skill in battle and noted for the many formidable opponents she slew during conflicts.

Much thanks and appreciation is in order to Emily Barnes, museum coordinator for the Ann & Gabriel Barbier Samurai Armor Collection in Dallas Texas, for information about this obscure historic character.

(painting photo: Mark Serman)

© Laurence Revene, 2014.


~ by Larry Revene on July 2, 2014.

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