Historical essay
The Lone Woman of Kokura

The Lone Woman of Kokura

Nyri A. Bakkalian

She was alone.

The men and women of the domain were all gone. In their flight, they’d set the castle town afire to deny the enemy the prize they sought. There was no stopping the enemy now — there were more of them, and they were better trained, better equipped, and better armed. The only choice for the house Ogasawara of Kokura was escape. The heart of the clan, its administrators and dependents, along with the Ogasawara family itself, took to the hills, leaving the ashen castle town in their wake.

They were all gone — all but one.

As the enemy probed the broken castle town, the woman stood alone — one blade against dozens of rifles — in the ruins of her world.

And, with everything else taken away, she charged.

Who was the Lone Woman in the Kokura Castle town ruins that day in 1866? We don’t know her name, though we know where she died in Kokura.

“Fujotai no Funsen” (Hard Fight of the Women’s Troop),
from the Meiji era (1868-1912) book “Byakkotai.” (Wikimedia Commons)

The Woman and the War

The Second Choshu War (1865–1866) was just one chapter in the political upheaval of the Bakumatsu era (1853–1868). Amidst the instability of a foundering Tokugawa Shogunate following its coerced signing of the Kanagawa Treaty with the United States, Choshu domain in western Japan emerged as a locus of opposition. The house of Mori, rulers of Choshu, had a history of resentment over their defeat by the Tokugawa two centuries before. As the Tokugawa Shogunate weakened, the Choshu domain saw the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot and to claim the Emperor, who was largely a figurehead but nevertheless remained the source of ultimate political legitimacy in Japan.

In its effort to push back against the upstart Choshu domain, the Tokugawa shogunate declared war and raised an army from allied domains across western Japan. But between long supply lines, mismanagement, and lack of initiative, the Tokugawa coalition did not prevail, and the war ended in a negotiated truce. But in the ensuing interlude, in which the Shogunate continued to veer from crisis to crisis, Choshu domain reorganized and rearmed. When hostilities resumed, the Shogunate tried again to rally regional domains to mount a response, but its campaign floundered completely. Choshu troops seized the offensive, which brought them to the Kokura Castle town, where the Lone Woman waited.

Kokura, in northern Kyushu, was not one of Japan’s largest feudal domains in terms of military power or income. Before the war, it held 150,000 koku of yearly agricultural income — just over a third of Choshu’s 369,000.1 It had been part of the shogunate’s coalition since May 1865.2 Faced with the attack of 1500 Choshu soldiers landing on the night of September 4 from across the strait of Shimonoseki, the shogunate’s local commander in Kokura, Ogasawara Nagamichi, tried to rally the allies under his command. A cousin of the Ogasawara of Kokura, Nagamichi was from nearby Karatsu domain, and eager to protect his kinfolk. But he was unable to maintain the cohesion of an increasingly fractious coalition force.

A sudden rainstorm, followed by the arrival of news from Osaka regarding shogun Tokugawa Iemochi’s death, sealed the collapse of the coalition forces based around Kokura.3 On the night of September 11, the allied domain troops abruptly left, followed shortly by Ogasawara and part of the shogunate’s own troops. Almost completely abandoned, the Kokura domain leaders consulted with the shogunate’s remaining officers in the area and agreed that they would set fire to the castle town and regroup their modest fighting forces elsewhere. The evacuation and burning took place the next day.4 On September 12, the Choshu forces entered what was left of the castle town. This was where they found the Lone Woman.

We don’t know much about her. We know that when some Choshu military leaders came for inspection on September 13, her body was found in the ruins of an estate belonging to Shibutami Arata, another Kokura clan elder. We know she fought, which implies she had at least some measure of training in the martial arts. She died, according to one contemporary source, after being shot in the hips and then beheaded. Shiraishi Seiichiro, Choshu businessman and accountant for Kiheitai, the unit that led the attack, wrote a poem upon seeing the Lone Woman’s body.

[gblockquote]Young flower,
blown over in the field by the storm.
The sight of your wilting form:
how sorrowful to behold!5[/gblockquote]

Beautiful and tinged with regret, Shiraishi’s poem reveals that this was a death equal to that of any male warrior, and functionally indistinguishable from it, including the taking of her head. In a town abandoned, she had chosen to stand her ground and had fought to the death.

Fighting Women in Bakumatsu Japan

Nakano Takeko was a Japanese female warrior of the Aizu Domain, who fought and died during the Boshin War. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the political upheaval that exploded into the internecine war that birthed the modern Japanese empire, how unique was a woman in the battlefield?

The Lone Woman was hardly an oddity among women of the samurai caste in that era.6 Fighting women in the Bakumatsu and early Meiji eras were surprisingly common, even if societal expectations and legal discrimination sought to preclude their participation from the battlefield. Historically, women of the warrior caste were expected to have some fighting skill and to share the burden of defense. In the largely peaceful Edo period, this idea lost its urgency, and men sought to further codify patriarchy into law and preclude women from combat. However, basic martial arts training remained part of the upbringing of many warrior caste women, as in the Mito domain in eastern Honshu and Satsuma domain in southern Kyushu.7

Most famous are the women of Aizu domain, far to the north in the Tohoku region (modern day Fukushima Prefecture). The domain’s laws forbade women’s participation in politics, underscoring the expectation that they would stay in the home. However, the women themselves, particularly those of a high class in the warrior caste, had the option of pursuing long-term study and training in the martial arts. This was not only a nicety of upbringing but also practical, as noted in the observations of Saito Yakuro, a visiting martial artist from Mito. During Saito’s time in Aizu, a fire broke out inside the castle town. In his journal, Saito notes that some of the first people to take to the streets after the fire were the women of the warrior caste, who donned white headbands, took up naginata, and stood guard in the streets to prevent looting.

During the Boshin War, the civil war of 1868–1869, the warrior women of Aizu again took to the field. Some entered the castle and took part in the month-long siege, standing armed watch beside the men, taking part in ammunition production, and assisting in fire suppression when the imperial army — which included the same forces that had entered Kokura in 1866 — began using incendiary rounds in its artillery barrage. Others fought outside the siege as raiders, employing a variety firearms and edged weapons in their fighting against the enemy. Nakano Takeko is an especially famous woman who fought and died at the Battle of Aizu, but there were many others, including Koike Shisetsu and Yamamoto Yae. The Lone Woman of Kokura, therefore, is in good company.

Samurai of the Chosyu clan, during the Boshin War period. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Lieu of a Conclusion

In a blog post, independent scholar Nishida Hideki quotes local Kokura-area historian Uchiyama Enji’s Kyodo Shiryo Ishu from Taisho 15 (1926), wherein a clearer, more gruesome, and ultimately haunting picture of the Lone Woman emerges.8 According to Uchiyama, the Lone Woman’s name was Tamanoe, and she was 28. When the castle town was evacuated, she appeared before Shibutami’s retired father and successfully lobbied for his permission to stay behind and fight to the last, in the family estate. Sleeves tied back, hakama legs hiked up, she waited in the vestibule with sword in hand.

When the Choshu troops arrived, she was waiting. Twenty to thirty Choshu troops surrounded the estate and raked it with rifle fire before entering. The first to enter the Shibutami home was taken completely by surprise: Tamanoe struck him down with her sword. She wounded the second to enter, but he recovered his wits in time to draw his pistol and shoot her in the left arm.

Wounded, she roared at the Choshu soldier.

“You dirty fools! Trying to stop a lone woman with guns. You laughable cowards!”

With that, she raised the sword to her neck and took her own life.

Even if we never confirm the identity of the Lone Woman, this much is certain: when we consider her alongside the stories of other women who took to the battlefield in that chaotic, deadly era, it’s abundantly clear: she wasn’t so alone after all.


  1. Nihon Hakugaku Kurabu, Edo 300han no Igai na “Sono ato.” (Tokyo: PHP Kenkyujo, 2007), 245, 248. Return to text.
  2. Kikuchi Akira, ed. Kyoto Shugoshoku Nisshi v. 3 (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha, 2008), 64–5. Return to text.
  3. Ishii Takashi, Ishin no nairan (Tokyo: Shiseido, 1977), 286. Return to text.
  4. Conrad Totman, Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu (Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1980), 233–5. Return to text.
  5. Translation mine, from the original as quoted in Furukawa Kaoru, Ishin no shonin (Tokyo: PHP Kenkyujo, 2017), Chapter 4, n.p. Return to text.
  6. I use “caste” to refer to the four statuses (mibun 身分) of warrior, farmer, artisan, merchant. To translate mibun as “class,” as in the Marxist sense, is incorrect; there were, for example, working-class warriors, particularly among the hereditary feudal infantry troopers called ashigaru. See Takahashi Bonsen, Ashigaru Kikigaki (Tokyo: Kamei Shoin, 1977). Return to text.
  7. Yamakawa Kikue, Women of the Mito Domain, trans. by Kate Wildman Nakai (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1992), 29–30. For more on women in Satsuma, see Yoshii Kazuko, Satsuma Ogojo (Kagoshima: Shun’endō Shuppan: Hatsubaijo Shun’endo Shoten, 1993). Return to text.
  8. The National Diet Library’s bibliographic record for Uchiyama’s original work. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Kokura Castle, view of the keep. Very impressive. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian (Ph.D. UPitt ‘17) is an Armenian-American queer woman by birth and a military historian by training. She is proud to have called the American and Japanese northeasts her home. She has produced nonfiction, fiction, and photography content for more than a dozen publications, including two newspapers and five anthologies, as well as for Eisner Award-nominated author Magdalene Visaggio’s Kim & Kim. What’s her secret, you ask? Garlic and Turkish coffee (but really mostly Turkish coffee). Come say hi to her on Twitter, Facebook, and Patreon at riversidewings.