Long before the term "samurai" came into usage, Japanese fighters were skilled with the sword and spear. These warriors included some women, such as the legendary Empress Jingu (c. 169-269 A.D.), pictured here leading an invasion of Korea.
According to the stories, Jingu was married to the fourteenth emperor of Japan, Chuai, who reigned between 192 and 200. After his death, she ruled as a regent for her young son. To pass the time, she invaded and conquered Korea (without shedding a drop of blood, according to the legend).
Linguistic purists point out that the term "samurai" is a masculine word; thus, there are no "female samurai."
Nonetheless, for thousands of years, certain upper class Japanese women have learned martial skills and participated in fighting.
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, many women of the samurai class learned how to handle the sword and the naginata (a blade on a long staff) primarily to defend themselves and their homes. In the event that their castle was overrun by enemy warriors, the women were expected to fight to the end and die with honor, weapons in hand.
Some young women were such skilled fighters that they rode out to war beside the men, rather than sitting at home and waiting for war to come to them. Here are pictures of some of the most famous among them.