Guest Post · martial arts

Why I’m not inspired by female warriors – despite loving martial arts (Guest Post)

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.)[1]

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).[2]

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.[3]

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 . . .

[1] Myriam Miedzian. (2002). Boys Will Be Boys; Breaking the link between masculinity and violence. Lantern Books, Page 35

[2] Lt Col. Dave Grossman. (2009). On Killing. Back Bay Books. Pages 43-4

[3] 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 and like/follow her facebook page:

13 thoughts on “Why I’m not inspired by female warriors – despite loving martial arts (Guest Post)

  1. Thanks for the Dave Grossman reference – I love Joanna Bourke’s ‘An Intimate History of Killing’ on similar topics.

    1. Many thanks – I didn’t know about that book but will certainly read it now you have recommended it – appreciate your signposting it . . .

  2. I listened to my grandfather’s stories about World War II, and I know that taking a life isn’t to be treated lightly. I’m perfectly happy to be a warrior in garden 🙂 I’m also amused by a lot of the images of female warriors – most often I laugh, “I would NOT go into battle wearing THAT, especially in Winter” 🙂

    1. You’re right on both counts Joelle. Images of women wearing skimpy, revealing armour to supposedly fight in are just baffling aren’t they!! 😉

  3. The glorification of war and violence is a essential part of conditioning of each generation, so if the need a nation can raise a army who will gladly and blindly follow it’s leaders into conflict with out question and personally sacrifice them selfs, where as martial arts which original sprung from war and conflict teach the value of life and self preservation, and opens the practioner to the real implications of violence and confrontation , and at its core stresses the need to avoid conflict and create alliances because the creaters of these systems survived conflicts and understand the physical and mental scars on survivors, so martial artists train to avoid conflict but if there no way out of the situation to finish quickly, not the misconception of the movies where martial artists are super human, fighting for hours against multiple attackers, which just reinforces the glorification of violence, so in this modern times of equality the need to romanticise these female warriors becomes part of the propaganda

    1. Thanks Matthew, you have moved my thinking further on, with your really insightful and helpful explanation / perspective – appreciated.

  4. The idea of martial arts in some manoeuvres is to deflect an opponent’s violent fist and hurtful energy…is fundamentally a real game-changer. It is so radical in concept. Imagine having an action film, where the heroine (or hero) fought off everyone,….but no one got physically hurt. I would challenge any movie director to create such an incredible action film. The opponents would only feel temporary minor pain for a few min.

    I didn’t understand the power of some manoeuvres until during a beginner’s tai class, the instructor showed us how to position oneself and have 4 people standing in a line-up, try to push you over. You can oppose this physically by just yourself without hurting the opponents. It was a powerful lesson to me, physically and psychologically. It’s how you solo, positon your body properly and stay rooted in the ground. Lots of life metaphors here.

    Sometimes we need fantasy stories of woman warriors who are like this archetype. How an old Chinese legend (which there was probably historic truth) of many centuries of Fu Mulan, goes to battle in place of her aging father, to protect the honour of her family… and returns after battle, to look after family. (I haven’t seen the Disney movie. This literary Chinese-American novel of family memory, feminism and social justice in America, resonates better with me.)

    1. Thanks as always for your interesting reflections Jean, and for the link – I know Maxine Hong Kingston’s beautiful memoir (if that’s the right word) well and agree with you that it’s a rich source of inspiration. I’m not yet certain exactly what the relationship between the warrior archetype and the reality is – need to think about and understand this more . . .

      1. Only if the heroine lives at the end of the story..otherwise it’s not worth pursuing. Self-sacrifice is a terrible thing in service of war.

  5. Hi Jean, when I read your comment it made me wonder how Artemis died for some reason – to see if there was a counter-example to what you are saying I guess, as she is undoubtedly an inspirational figure. I looked it up and found that, “According to myth, Artemis did not die, for she was immortal”. Of course! So perhaps there is something quite profound in the distinction you make. So much to think about! 🙂

  6. Have you ever read Gail Collins book on women in American history? It highlights the type of strong of character women that I look up to….not just strong of force. This post really spoke to me as a mother of two boys and I’m adding Miedzian’s book to my reading list!

  7. American Warrior, a non-profit organization founded in 2007 to motivate thousands to honor American Veterans and Patriotic Operations. American Ninja Warrior” returns for an exciting eighth season this summer on NBC.

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