Transcribed by Paul Budden
Nakano Takeko (中野 竹子, April 1847 – 16 October 1868)
Nakano Takeko was a female warrior of the Aizu Domain, who took part in and died during the Boshin War. Her weapon of choice for which was famous was the naginata. She was the leader of an improvised group of female combatants, which independently fought during the Battle of Aizu.
Without permission, Takeko and other women stepped forward to the front line despite the senior Aizu retainers’ wishes to not fight as an official part of the Aizu army. Her unit was later retrospectively called the Jōshitai (娘子隊, Girls’ Army).
She was born in Edo as the firstborn daughter of Nakano Heinai, a samurai official of Aizu. Her mother was Nakano Kōko, daughter of Oinuma Kinai, a samurai of Toda of the Ashikaga Domain. Nakano Toyoki and Nakano Masako1 were her younger brother and sister. They lived in Beidai Ninocho, at the residence of Tamogami Hyogo, a distant relative of her father. She came from a powerful samurai family and was good-looking and well-educated.
From 1853 to 1863, she was strictly trained in martial arts, the literary arts of Chinese Confucian classics and calligraphy. She was adopted by Akaoka Daisuke, the famous instructor of Matsudaira Teru, the adopted younger sister of Matsudaira Katamori, daimyō Aizu.
Teaching students younger than herself, like her sister, who also attended school, she loved to read the many stories of Japanese female warriors; the legend of Tomoe Gozen deeply affected her and from childhood, she would recite the Ogura Hyakunin isshu.
Having learnt Shizuka-Ryu naginata under Kurokawauchi Dengoro2, she found employment from lord Niwase the Itakura estate, a secondary domain in today’s Okayama prefecture. As her private secretary, she taught naginata to the lord’s wife, leaving this position in 1863, when, as mentioned, she was adopted by her teacher Akaoka Daisuke. Who had been transferred to Osaka to work for the Aizu Domain for security duties in Kyoto. Akaoka tried to marry her to his nephew, but she refused due to the social unrest that shook the nation. Instead, she reunited with her family in Edo.
Nakano returned to the region of Aizu for the first time in February 1868, after working as a martial arts instructor with her adoptive father during the 1860s.
In those spring and summer months at Aizuwakamatsu castle, she taught naginata to both women and children and captured ‘peeping toms ‘ at the woman’s bathrooms. It is also believed that she would do a thousand Iai (sword drawing) every night before going to bed.
Nakano is linked to the Boshin War, which saw two factions opposed in a civil conflict: the Tokugawa shogunate’s loyal supporters against the advocates for the Meiji emperor’s restoration.
During the conflict, Nakano Takeko worked in defence of the shōgun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and took part in the Battle of Aizu. She distinguished herself brandishing a naginata in the clash with overwhelming imperial forces, together with her mother and sister.
Nakano was the leader of the group; she was 21 years old. The following ladies made up the group:
Nakano’s mother, Kōko, was in her 40s and her sister, Masako, 16 years old. Hirata Kochō, her younger sister Hirata Yoshi, Yoda Kikuko, Yoda Mariko their mother or older sister. Also, the famous female warrior, Yamamoto Yaeko, Okamura Sakiko and older sister Okamura Makiko. An unnamed woman who was the concubine of Watashi. Jinbo Yukiko, a female retainer of the Aizu clan. Students of Monna naginata dojo: Monna Rieko, Saigo Tomiko and Nagai Sadako.
The younger sister of Hara Gorō. Kawahara Asako and Koike Chiyoku.
The weather was atrocious and in the rain and sleet, the women went into battle. Furuya Sakuzaemon, the commander of Aizu’s troops, designated Nakano as the leader of the samurai women the day before she died.
At the Yanagi bridge early that morning, in Nishibata, Fukushima, Nakano ordered a charge against the Japanese Imperial Army troops of the Domain of Ōgaki. Commanded by an officer wearing a Shaguma – (赤熊, “Red Bear”), headgear worn by the officers of the Imperial Japanese Army troops in the Boshin War), and bearing firearms. The Imperial forces were shocked when they realised that their enemies were female warriors, so their commanders ordered their troops not to kill them.
This brief hesitation gave Nakano’s warriors an opening for attack, killing several Imperial troops before the gunfire resumed. The women of Aizu impressed their enemy with such a level of lethal fury they had not expected such resistance. Armed with her naginata, Nakano Takeko killed at least five or six soldiers before being shot in the chest3.
Rather than allowing the enemy to take possession of her body and wreak havoc by taking her head as a trophy, Nakano asked her sister Masako to behead her to prevent her capture and give her an honourable burial. Masako agreed and asked Ueno Yoshisaburō, an Ainu soldier, to help with the beheading. Hirata Kochō, the younger foster sister, saved by Jinbo Yukiko during the battle, who was second in command, took over the troop to defend the Castle after Nakano was killed, Yamamoto Yaeko became her deputy. After the battle, both Kōko and Yūko entered Tsuruga castle and joined Yamamoto Yae.
Nakano Takeko’s head was taken by her sister to the nearby Hōkai temple of her family, in modern Aizubange, Fukushima prefecture, and buried with honour by a priest at the base of a pine tree. Her naginata was donated to the temple.
Following the Meiji era’s reforms, in 1868, when the Emperor returned to power and the samurai class was abolished, Nakano Takeko is recorded as one of the last samurai in history.
A monument to her was erected beside her grave at Hōkai Temple. Aizu native and Imperial Japanese Navy admiral Dewa Shigetō was involved in its construction.
During the annual Aizu Autumn Festival, a group of young girls wearing hakama and shiro headbands take part in the procession, commemorating the actions of Nakano and her band of women fighters of the Joshigun.
- Hoffman, Michael (October 9, 2011). “Women warriors of Japan”. The Japan Times.
- Kincaid, Chris (August 9, 2015). “Japan’s Warrior Women”. Japan Powered. (incl. “The Wshigun“)
- Smithsonian Institution (2015). “Samurai Warrior Queens”. Smithsonian Channel.
- Szczepanski, Kallie (April 1, 2017). “Images of Samurai Women”. ThoughtCo.
- “The Last Woman Samurai”. Womankind (# 3). February–April 2015.
- Samurai Warrior Queens TRAILER. Urban Canyons. YouTube.
- Nakano Takeko – Wikipedia
- “Aizuhan Boshin Senso Nisshi” Kikuchi Akira, Shinjinbutsu-Oraisha, 2001
- “Shonen Kagayaku Byakkotai” Takagi Ei-ichiro, Daidokan Shoten, 1931
1 English references often refer to ‘Yuko’ but ‘Masako’ is correct, according to all available Japanese references.
2 Some references about Itto-ryu however this is not correct.
3 According to Yoda Kikuko in the book ‘Aizuhan Boshin Senso Nisshi’, Takeko was shot on her forehead. Masako immediately beheaded her sister and wrapped the head in hachimaki.
Special thanks to Luiz Kobayashi for providing references on Aizu history.