Ode to the Anti-Heroines: Nakano Takeko

Yep, it’s her.


Nakano Takeko was a female samurai warrior (Onna-bugeisha) of the Aizu domain in Japan. She lived during the Tokugawa shogunate of the 1800s, the last feudal Japanese military government. She was the daughter of an Aizu official (the Aizu were at the top of samurai society), well-educated, and fully trained in the martial arts.


Artwork by Christof Grobelski


Takeko’s Wikipedia entry is infuriatingly short, and trying to find out who she was as a person is pretty much impossible, because 1) she’s not White, and 2) she was a she in feudal Japan. According to the Smithsonian Channel’s documentaryglory and honor were reserved exclusively for male warriors. Which, of fucking course. What better way to ensure that history’s amazing women are forgotten and all the mediocre men are remembered instead?

Cersei gets it.

Basically, Takeko lived during an era in Japan’s history when the status of the onna-bugeisha was reduced to dogshit, because why not? (The rest of the world was doing it, after all. Fuck women.) While women warriors early on in Japan’s history had been given relatively high status, allowing the successes of such warriors as Tomoe Gozen, a late twelfth-century female samurai warrior who defeated her enemies (and beheaded one of them), the Edo Period (1600–1868) marked a deterioration in women’s position in society:

Over time the independent samurai woman was replaced by an image which depicted the ideal samurai women as humble, obedience, self-controlled and above all subservient to men. Respecting one’s husband and family and bearing a male child became this ideal woman’s most important tasks. By the later feudal ages, the law of primogeniture prevailed as increasing disputes over property resulted in girls being debarred from rights to inherited property. Supporting the deterioration in women’s position were both Confucian doctrine and Buddhism which denigrated women’s intellectual and moral capacities. After the 15th century, the teachings of the “Three Obediences” reigned. “A woman has no way of independence through life. When she is young, she obeys her father; when she is married, she obeys her husband; when she is widowed, she obeys her son.” —womeninworldhistory.com

And this is part of what makes Takeko so amazing, and so fucking anti-heroine.

Before I get into that, though, let me educate you on the onna-bugeisha. (HA! I’m so damned condescending for someone who learned all this shit no more than 3 hours ago.) These women were definitely the exception, not the rule, but they existed—and they completely kicked ass. They were trained to protect communities that lacked male warriors, and their ethic was as fierce and uncompromising as that of their male counterparts, the samurai. Take a look at these portraits of actual female samurai from the 1800s and tell me you aren’t awed:


They look so sweet. And pretty. And goddamn, they will CUT YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF if you mess with them.

The naginata was their weapon of choice, mainly because it required skill and speed without size or strength.

A naginata, mother fuckers.


Back to Takeko. She learned to fight at age 6. The Aizu samurai code of ethics, by the way, applied to the girls as well as the boys. Even at the tender age of 6, aspiring warriors were taken away from their families and “adopted” by their teachers. Loyalty to their clan became the epitome of their existence. It didn’t take long for Takeko’s master, Daisuke, to realize he had a fighter on his hands: When he tried to marry his own nephew to his rising star pupil (who was all 16 years old), she declined, then angrily broke away from his tutelage and became a master in her own right. 

Damn straight, bitches.

Thing is, life was relatively peaceful in Japan up until the Meiji Imperial family sought to regain power over Japan from the shogun. I’m not going to give you a detailed history of the conflict here, because you can Google it yourself, you lazy slobs. Basically, lots of samurai and nobles disapproved with the Tokugawa shogunate’s welcoming of foreign influence on Japan, and Sonnō Jōi (“Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians”) became the slogan of the Emperor (who was, up until then, just a figurehead, kind of like the English monarchy these days) and his supporters. This led to the Japanese Revolution, and with the help of Western weapons (Minié rifles), the Imperial Army defeated the shogunate slowly but surely, leading up to the Boshin War.

ANYWAY. Takeko was a samurai of the Aizu, loyal to the Shogun. She wanted to fight for her clan, even though at that point in history women were not allowed to fight as part of the samurai army. The samurai men believed that having women in their forces shamed the clan. Did that stop Takeko? Fuck no. First, she chopped off her hair and rounded up her troop of 18 women warriors (whom she had trained, including her sister Yuko), then she led them to where 5,000 Aizu samurai were out-gunned by 15,000 of the emperor’s men.

When she reached an Aizu outpost close to the fighting, the samurai men weren’t happy to see her and her “girl” warriors. So she told those penis-endowed samurai that she was determined to fight, and if they wouldn’t let her and her women fight alongside them, they’d all commit suicide right then and there. So, you know, they let the women fight. (Self-righteous fuckers, the whole lot of ’em. “Sure, ladies, we’ll let you DIE FOR YOUR PEOPLE, but just so you know, we ain’t giving you any credit for that shit, because that makes us look bad. All the credit goes to US MEN. Mmmmmkay?”)

So here’s what happened: On the morning of October 10, 1868, Takeko and her women charged into battle against the emperor’s men. The men saw that their opponents were women and were ordered to take them alive. MISTAKE.

You guys, I could tell this whole story in GIFs. I’ve actually thought about doing that.

Let me put it this way: The women did enough damage that the whole “take the women alive” thing turned into “HOLY SHIT, SHOOT THEM. FORGET WHAT I SAID, JUST FUCKING SHOOT THEM.” Takeko herself was doing the most damage, apparently, because the emperor’s men became determined to stop her. And stop her they did… Unfortunately, my girls were watching the documentary with me when this shit happened:

While she was leading a charge against Imperial Japanese Arby troops she was shot in the chest. Knowing her remaining time on earth to be short, Takeko asked her sister, Yūko, to cut her head off and have it buried rather than permit the enemy to seize it as a trophy. It was taken to Hōkai Temple and buried underneath a pine tree.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I scarred my kids for life. HEY, it’s educational. Life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, right? AHEM.

Here’s the craziest part about the whole story: Takeko wasn’t really that much of a rarity, and that’s only coming to light now, with archaeological evidence showing that in 16th century Japan, up to 30% of the warriors who died in battle were women. 

Thirty. Goddamn. Percent. Talk about unsung heroes, eh?

Yeah, I’m done. Fuck off.