Women Warriors in Japanese History? Yes, but…

The subtitle to this article tells you most of what you need to know:

Christobel Hasting, “How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan’s Women Samurai, Were Erased From History: While most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of domesticity, onna-bugeisha women warriors who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts” https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/a383aj/female-samurai-onna-bugeisha-japan

My reaction when I saw this on twitter was

“Oh, no, Stephen Turnbull has another book. Massive conflation of eras and classes (Tokugawa-era samurai women described as ‘protecting their villages’!), uncritical use of sources (Tomoe Gozen, of Heike monogatari fame, of course), emergency measures as norms, etc.”

Obviously, I can’t tell until I see the book itself how many of these errors are built into the book and how many of them are the fault of the article-writer (It’s not a review, so much as an uncritical rehash). But I’ve read Turnbull works before, and I have not been impressed by his historical skills. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t know what to do with it.

In this case, there’s almost nothing in the article that isn’t pretty well-known to Japanese historians: Aside from Tomoe Gozen, the main figure in the article is the leader of the ‘women’s corps’ in the defense of Aizu during the Bakumatsu wars, who shows up in Shiba Goro’s and Yamakawa Kikue’s writings.

As usual, Turnbull makes way too much of Tokugawa era martial arts culture, and his argument about historical erasure would be much more convincing if historians hadn’t done all this work already.

As I said, I’ll have to see the book itself at some point – which apparently came out in 2012? (Yeah, it’s on the big river site.) – but this is not encouraging.

I’ve reviewed Turnbull work before:

1 Comment

  1. Hi,Dr.Dresner.
    My name is Takeru Oshima.I am a Japanese university student.I learned the history of the own country in Japan until of the high school student.However, I did not learn about these.A ninja in particular and the samurai are done with very representative social position in the Japanese history, but at all, strangely, it thinks that there does not are rumors about the woman martial arts master who constituted military arts culture in the Edo era on the history.I thought that you must not let it weather to have fought that women armed themselves as a Japanese and followed a hometown.

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