What Did Female Samurai Wear?

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Armor worn by women samurai
source: Unkown author / CC BY-SA

Armor worn by women samurai Tachibana Ginchiyo at
Siege of Yanagawa in 1600

The Japanese Samurai are legendary warriors in today’s society. They’re popular in pop culture and continue to be an inspiration for many films and television shows around the world. Samurai are typically depicted as males, but there were many female samurai who fought in battles and defended their homes, but you may wonder, what did these female samurai wear?

The clothing that female samurai would wear would depend on their position in society. Women who fought on the battlefield wore clothing and armor similar to the men. Married women who were part of the samurai nobility would wear kimonos in subtle colors, while unmarried women wore brighter colors.

This article will explore the differences between male and female samurai and how a women’s position in society determined what a female samurai would wear.

Who Were the Samurai?

The samurai were military nobility in Japan from the 12th century until the 1870s when the feudal society ended. Samurai were always noble and came from noble families. Their job was to protect their country and families from enemies.

Samurai roles in Society

There are two classifications of samurai: the samurai warrior and the samurai class. The warrior fought on the battlefield to defend Japan and was often a man, although many female samurai fought alongside men.

The second is the samurai class. They were the military nobility and could be men, women, or children. If a samurai warrior had a wife and children, his wife and children were considered to be in the samurai class and were of the nobility and were likely quite wealthy.

Male samurai were rarely home during wars because they had to go be on the battlefield. This left the women to be in charge of the household. Samurai women were expected to run the household, care for elderly parents, and raise and educate their children. Financial responsibility and almost all other household responsibilities fell onto the woman while her husband was away.

Women carried the responsibility of marrying into another noble family to form an alliance between the two families. These alliances helped the families survive in battles and it often kept them safe. A woman could divorce her husband if he betrayed his wife’s family or if he didn’t treat his wife well.

Women’s roles in society were important, yet they weren’t seen as equals to the male samurai warriors. During the Edo period in Japan, they had to have permits to travel and have a man with them when they traveled. They were trusted with financial responsibility but couldn’t participate in political affairs.

A Samurai Role in Battle

Male samurai were the ones who donned their armor and went out to battle. They were expected to be fiercely loyal to Japan, based on the rules of Bushido, a set of moral codes involving loyalty to their country, maintaining honor, mastering martial arts, being sincere, and being frugal, among other things.

A male samurai’s duty to his country often kept him away from his home, leaving the woman to guard and maintain the house.

Samurai class women were also held to a set of moral codes. A samurai woman needed to be disciplined, obedient to her husband and parents, caring (but not too caring) to her children, and needed to know how to keep financial records, manage the property, and teach the children. In some cases, she would also need to educate her servants.

Samurai women were also trained in the art called tantojutsu, which is a form of knife fighting. Women were expected to defend the household and their honor if necessary.

There were women who fought on the battlefield with men, but they weren’t recognized as samurai warriors, although there are some exceptions.

The Onna-Bugeisha – Women-Martial Artist

The samurai women who had to go out to the battlefield were called onna-bugeisha, which translates to “female martial artist.” It wasn’t common for women to be brought to the battlefield. They were usually only deployed in desperate times.

The Female Warriors

Onna-bugeisha date back around 200AD or earlier. They were trained in the art of tantojutsu so they could protect themselves and others if they lived in an area that didn’t have many men living in them.

Throughout Japanese history, there are many stories of onna-bugeisha who rose to positions of power. Women would occasionally become the leaders of their clan if they were the only heir or if they proved to be great leaders in combat.

Tachibana Ginchiyo became the head of the Tachibana clan because her father didn’t have any sons and because she was said to be a strong leader who was on par with other warriors at the time.

From Warrior to Nobility

The Edo period in Japan shifted the way society functioned. This period began in 1603 and ended in 1868, and it brought on a reformation in Japan that introduced western practices, inspired enjoyment of art, and brought positive economic growth to the country.

This period placed emphasis on education. Everyone was encouraged to become literate, and by the end of this period, most women could read and took classes about finance, literature, and philosophy.

Because the Edo period ended the wars, there wasn’t a need for samurai warriors anymore. Instead, the male samurai warriors took on roles of bureaucrats, administrators, and scholars. Since they didn’t spend time in combat, they had more time to get an education.

Women also lost their need to learn tantojutsu for defense. Instead, they stayed in the home and received an education, taught their own children, and managed the household.

Onna-bugeisha held important roles for centuries, but the need for them ended once there weren’t any more wars. There were fewer chances for women to become onna-bugeisha clan leaders and more chances for them to stay home and receive an education.

Clothing

As in most older societies, clothing played an important role in Japan. They were more than just clothing – they held symbolism and meaning in them. Men and women wore different pieces of clothing for specific reasons.

Let’s take a look at the clothing the samurai class wore. Most of these clothing items were worn underneath armor while the samurai warriors were in battle, except for the kimono.

Kimono

The kimono is the national dress of Japan and has been worn in the country for many centuries, and is still worn today despite their growing reputation as being uncomfortable.

Kimonos were worn by samurai women and served to show whether a woman was married or not as well as their status symbol.

Young girls and unmarried women wore kimonos with long sleeves, while married women wore a kimono style with shorter sleeves. A married woman’s choice of kimono depended on her husband – the number of kimono layers and the color combinations were based on the clan and power of her husband.

Colors had strong meaning behind them. Bright colors and patterns were considered to be immodest and showed a lack of humility. Older and married women wore dull colors; elderly women wore browns and greys because it matched the wisdom of their age.

Young samurai children were dressed in bright colors despite the connotations associated with them. Once they grew older, they would “graduate” to subtle colors and it was treated as a special coming-of-age ceremony.

Male samurai also wore kimonos. They would sometimes wear them on the battlefield underneath their armor, but they had other garments they could wear underneath instead.

Hakama

Hakama are pleated pants or skirts that are worn over a kimono. They were traditionally only worn by samurai men; however, after samurai warriors were abolished in 1868 at the end of the Edo period, women began to wear them as they went to college and needed more comfortable clothing so they could engage in activities at school.

Although they weren’t worn by samurai women, they’re worth mentioning because they eventually became a symbol for supporting women’s rights and were popular among educated and cultured women.

Kyahan

Kyahan are leggings usually made out of cloth that were meant to provide protection and warmth while on the battlefield. They didn’t provide too much protection since they were made of cloth, but they were usually worn underneath the suneate, which are shin guards made of cloth and iron.

Shitagi

A shitagi was worn by warriors as an undershirt for their armor. It was worn similarly to a kimono but had a button on the neck and a cord that would tie in the back. Although they weren’t common for women to wear, it’s assumed they wore them if they went onto the battlefield.

Tabi

Tabi are socks that create separation between the big toe and the rest of the toes. They allow thonged sandals to be worn with them and provide protection for the feet. They have been worn throughout Japan as far back as the 15th century.

Uwa-obi

An uwa-obi is a belt or a sash that was worn by the samurai class. It wrapped around the waist two or three times and was where the samurai would place their swords and knives. The belt was typically worn with a piece of leather in the middle in the front so they could locate where the middle was if they were in the dark.

Waraji

Waraji are thonged sandals made from straw. Samurai warriors wore them with tabi during battle. The toes hang off of the sole to create better traction when running or climbing. The thong toe was designed to hit an acupuncture point on the foot that was said to aid the body in basic functionalities.

Waraji have straw ropes that tie around the ankles and feet. There was no specific way to tie them; everyone had their own way of doing it.

Traditional Samurai Armor

Samurai warriors had six basic components of armor they had to wear:

  • Chest armor
  • Helmet
  • Facial armor
  • Armored sleeves
  • Shin armor
  • Thigh armor

Additional optional pieces of armor were occasionally worn that will be discussed in the next section.

These are the thirteen pieces of armor they had to wear while in combat that covered the six main areas of the body they needed to protect:

  • Kote: Arm covers made of several iron plates that were connected by chains. The chains were around the joints to allow movement, and the main parts of the arms, hands, and fingers that don’t bend were covered with the plates.
  • Haidate: Thigh protection made of cloth, chains, and iron. A cloth base covered the thighs and tied around the waist. Small iron plates were connected by chains and were then sewn onto the cloth. These were worn underneath the hakama.
  • Suneate: Shin guards with knee guard attachments. Like the haidate, the suneate has a cloth base with thin pieces of iron attached by chains sewn onto the cloth. At the top, there is another piece of cloth with hexagonal pieces of iron sewn into it that serve to protect the knees.
  • Kogake: Foot coverings made of iron. Kogake served to turn waraji into “sneakers.” Shaped like tabi, these coverings were made of iron plates connected with chains and then sewn to a piece of cloth. They were worn over the waraji and tied around the foot and ankle.
  • Sode: Iron shoulder protectors. Several long pieces of iron plates were sewn together and attached to the chest armor to protect the shoulders.
  • Menpo and yodare-kake: Guards for the face and throat. The menpo and yodare-kake were made of iron. The menpo covered the face below the eyes and the yodare-kake covered the throat down to the chest and shoulders. The forehead was not covered and there were holes for the nostrils and mouth.
  • Kabuto, shikoro, and maedate: A helmet, neck guard, and crests. The kabuto was a helmet made of iron with a neck guard attached to it called the shikoro. The kabuto usually had crests attached to them that had specific meanings.
  • Himo or obi: A belt meant for carrying weapons. This is the same thing as an uwa-obi. The belts were usually made from rope or cloth.
  • Karuta tatami dou: Chest armor. This armor was made of several small iron plates tied or sewed together. It could fold up and easily be carried when not in use.
  • Kusazuri: Armor for the pelvis area. Kusazuri were typically panels of either leather or iron that hung from the karuta tatami dou.

Optional Pieces

These pieces of armor were not required to be worn by warriors. They cover the armpits, chest, waist, feet, and neck. These pieces were meant to cover the areas that the main pieces of armor couldn’t:

  • Wakibiki: Cloth rectangles covered in chain armor that covered the armpits. They were either worn inside or outside of the chest armor, depending on the type of wakibiki.
  • Manju no wa: A shirt-like piece that protected the shoulders, collar area, and armpits. They were usually cloth with chain armor or made of iron or leather.
  • Manchira: A vest made of iron and chain armor sewn to a cloth that served to protect the chest. Some forms covered the armpits, as well.
  • Tate-eri: Pillow-like pieces placed on the shoulders to protect them from the weight of the chest armor.
  • Nodowa and guruwa: Neck protection made of iron, chain armor, and cloth. Nodowa was tied around the back of the neck while guruwa wrapped around the front and the back of the neck.

Female Samurai in Combat

As stated earlier, it wasn’t common for women to go to the battlefield. If women had to take on the role of a protector, they were usually doing it at home to protect their family and honor. However, they were occasionally called to the battlefield when they needed help or were short on men.

It’s assumed that women on the battlefield wore the same armor as the men. Samurai warriors are typically assumed to be men, and most depictions of samurai armor are shown to be worn by men. Preserved drawn images of courageous women who fought on the battlefield such as Tachibana Ginchiyo almost always show them sitting graciously in a flowing kimono.

Summary

Female samurai had different roles than men. They were required to stay home to protect the property and care for the children. Because of their domestic roles, they didn’t need to wear armor.

Instead, they wore kimonos in colors that were seen as appropriate for their age and marital status. Young and unmarried women wore bright colors. Married women wore subdued colors that were often the colors of their husband’s clan, and elderly women wore brown and grey.

On occasion, female samurai would have to go to the battlefield in times of need. It’s assumed that they wore men’s standard clothing: hakama, kyahan, shitagi, tabi, uwa-obi, and waraji. The armor pieces were kote, haidate, suneate, kogake, sode, menpo, yodare-kake, kabuto, maedate, himo or obi, karuta tatami dou, and kusazuri.

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