A friend has sent me a three-minute video called Women Were Some of the Fiercest Samurai Warriors Ever. It’s about a woman called Takeko Nakano who led an army of women to fight in the Boshin War (Japanese Revolution).
He thinks he’s sent me an exciting, inspirational and glorious story about women’s empowerment, which I will love as a female martial arts practitioner.
What he’s actually sent me is a story about thousands of men killing and wounding each other; and then some women getting involved too, killing and being killed. The end of the clip shows Takeko dying in action at the heartbreaking age of 21. I know he means well; but exactly what part of this was I supposed to enjoy, or find empowering?
He’s not the only one who thinks like this of course. Only the other day, a Karate friend said: I’ve found the coolest role model for you! Her name is Tomoe Gozen (she was a late twelfth-century female samurai warrior). The image of the female warrior is iconic and popular; often depicted in a glamorous and sexualised way.
This article is not about whether war is right or wrong or justifiable – these are enormous questions with no easy answers.
It’s also not challenging the resonance and power of the warrior archetype (male or female); an image which instinctively evokes a deep, emotional response, as it strikes a chord in our unconscious collective memory.
It’s simply about whether we should feel excited or inspired by the violent actions of real-life warriors in real-life battles, whether male or female.
Myriam Miedzian writes:
It would be unthinkable for a respected children’s publishing house to publish a book for children entitled Famous Public Hangings, or Famous Witch Burnings, “excitingly illustrated in full color.” Western society has rejected public hangings and witch burnings together with slavery and gladiatorial fights, and sees itself as having progressed towards a more civilised set of values and attitudes. But a book entitled Famous Battles of World History, “excitingly illustrated in full color” is perfectly acceptable. (I found a copy in the waiting room of my daughter’s paediatrician.)
Lt Col Dave Grossman argues that our glamorisation and constant, thoughtless consumption of misleading, “exciting” images of war (for example through movies and computer games) has the same effect as operant conditioning on rats. It promotes blissful ignorance of the real, horrific cost of killing on the ones who kill; and contributes to our rising rates of violence.
Grossman cites research that found that after sixty days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another. (The remaining two percent are said to have aggressive psychopathic personalities).
Is war really so cool then, that a Youtube video about a young female warrior dying in battle can be considered an example of women’s empowerment?
This is not to say that women’s courage and ability to fight are not inspirational or worth celebrating. China Galland’s book: The Bond Between Women; A Journey to Fierce Compassion is a compelling portrait of 20th century women warriors. It’s about women who (consciously or unconsciously) channel the Hindu Warrior Goddess Durga, or their own cultural equivalent to fight child trafficking; or feed the poor; or do battle on environmental issues.
It’s moving also to read about wartime heroines such as Edith Cavell or Susie King Taylor who worked bravely and tirelessly to save others’ lives in the face of danger. And I’m deeply grateful to the women and men who fight to protect us in everyday life in the line of duty. The title of this article is not quite true; because their spirit and selflessness are of course awesome and inspiring.
I just can’t feel excited or inspired by the actual violence these people may face and/or administer in the course of what they do. Just sad that it has to be like this.
Violence is fascinating; but all too often we don’t really understand it, and enjoy it in an oversimplistic way. But the examples of women warriors cited above live(d) in close, daily contact with the actual, ugly reality of violence, which is something quite different.
How does this link back to martial arts? Toby Threadgill says,
This is the true purpose of budo. To allow one to acknowledge the reality of violence in our world, to properly address it, temper one’s spirit against abusing its powers and then transform the associated power of violence into a force for good.
I don’t blame my friend in any way for sending over the video clip. He is just a product of our society, which finds glamorised, sanitised images of battle exciting. But I do see martial arts training as a potential instrument to challenge this culture; and promote a more mature and nuanced understanding of violence – and that possibility really is something exciting and empowering to contemplate . . .
 Myriam Miedzian. (2002). Boys Will Be Boys; Breaking the link between masculinity and violence. Lantern Books, Page 35
 Lt Col. Dave Grossman. (2009). On Killing. Back Bay Books. Pages 43-4
 Toby Threadgill. (n.d.). Commentary on Yukiyoshi Takamura. (1978). Tameshigiri Reigi
Image credit: Takeko Nakano – By Original author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can find her blog at www.budo-inochi.com and like/follow her facebook page: www.facebook.com/kaimorg