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Nakano Takeko: The Last Samurai

Hello and welcome to A Murderess Affair! My name is Gabrielle and this week our murderess is one who I believe should be known as one of the true “Last Samurai”. Her name is Nakano Takeko, and she taught, formed, and led a one woman army against overwhelming imperial forces. Her tale is one of tragedy and bravery, and she died in battle at age 21.

She was born in April 1847 in Edo, the previous name for Tokyo, Japan. Her father was a samurai official Nakano Heinai and her mother, Nakano Kōko, was the daughter of another samurai who’d been employed in service.

It seems like the family name was “Nakano” and her first name was “Takeko”. She was the oldest of 3, and had a younger brother Nakano Toyoki and a younger sister Nakano Yūko. She was described as “good looking and well educated”, and had the benefit of being the oldest daughter in a well known and powerful samurai family.

When she was around 6 until she was around 16, she went through vigorous training for martial arts, literature, and calligraphy. She ended up being adopted by her teacher Akaoka Daisukek who was a famous instructor in their own right, and becoming a teacher herself, educating those younger than her in the school. Supposedly, she loved to read stories about Japanese female warriors, generals, and empresses.

She was able to find work at a lord’s estate, where she taught naginata, which is a pole type fighting style to the lord’s wife and also worked as her secretary.

Around 1863, the nation of Japan was going through a lot of social unrest. Her adoptive father was working in Kyoto for security reasons, and tried to get her to marry his nephew, but she refused, preferring to return to her family at this difficult and dangerous time.

When she returned home, she taught naginata to women and children in the Aizuwakamatsu castle, and also worked catching peeping Toms in the women’s bathroom.

Okay, editor’s note-this lady sounds freaking amazing and I’m loving everything about her and her story so far. Probably one of my favorite stories so far on this podcast in all honesty.

At the height of her martial arts career, the Boshin war was happening. The Boshin war is also known as the Japanese Revolution. Quick history lesson, this war was between supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate and the advocates of the Meiji emperor who wanted him restored.

So the Tokugawa shogunate was a “feudal military” government, which basically means that it was “a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.” Under the shogunate, Japan was more isolated and banned foreign travel. The Meiji emperor wanted to expand Japan from an isolationist country to an industrialized country.

Basically, in my own completely unprofessional opinion, it seems like this war was between keeping with a traditional way of ruling Japan versus modernizing Japan, with the shogunate on the traditional side and the Meiji emperor on the modernization side.

So, during this war Takeko was on the side of the shōgun Tokugawa Yoshinubu. However, despite how skilled and accomplished that she was as a fighter, the officials did not allow women to fight in battles. Takeko decided that she wasn’t going to let that stop her, and formed her own army of female warriors to fight in battles alongside the traditional army. This female army was composed of Takeko’s mother and sister, Kouko and Yūko, along with around 14 other women. One of these women was another famous female warrior Yamamoto Yaeko. Takeko was designated the leader of this army.

During the Boshin War, the shogun actually surrendered in April of 1868. However, loyalists to the cause and their old way of living. The female army, known inofficially as the Joshitai, was one of them, and they retreated with the other rebels to the town of Aizu.

At Aizu, many of the women refused to be taken alive, preferring to die in battle or kill themselves after having killed their children. The Meiji army was one to raze the ground and leave no man standing, and any women caught would be sold to the Western foreigners who helped back them. So instead of being caught, many women preferred death.

The Joshitai women with Takeko as their leader fought to hold of the Meiji army on different battle fronts, protecting the Aizu castle and allowing people in the area to head there for refuge, until eventually the gates themselves had to close for protection as the fighting got closer.

Due to misinformation, the Joshitai ended up joining forces with an Aizu cannon brigade. They had been lead to believe that one of the princesses had fled the castle and was taking refuge in a nearby area called Bange, and they all banded together to go protect her.

However, when they arrived in Bange, they found that the princess had not actually left the Aizu castle. It was when returning to the castle to help protect it that they ran into the cannon brigade.

Now originally, the leader of this brigade refused to work with the Joshitai, not wanting the female army to make his brigade look bad. That was his excuse.

Takeko threatened to disembowel herself right then and there if they refused to let them fight together, and others who were higher up on the ladder told the brigade leader to let the Joshitai fight with them.

They collaborated, and decided that they should try to take out some of the imperial army leaders who had claimed the Yanagi bridge. The Yanagi bridge was also called the Bridge of Tears because of the amount of executions that had taken place there.

The night before the battle, Takeko and her mother along with some of the other women in the army discussed what to do with Takeko’s younger sister, Yuko. Yuko, at 16 years old, was reportedly extremely pretty, and the women worried about her fate if she was to be captured.

Eventually, they decided to take Yuko with them, and collectively keep an eye on her. None of the women there planned to survive the battle, and promised that they would kill Yuko before themselves out of mercy if it came down to it.

The battle began early on an October morning. The plan was to send the female army in first, as a straightforward attack along with some peasant volunteers, and then have the cannon brigade attack from two different sides. The female army knew going into it that this would be a suicide attack, hence why none of them were planning on surviving after.

When the enemy commander realized that it was an army of females charging them, he halted fire in order to not kill them. This order was quickly rescinded as the female army quickly tore through their ranks. Takeko killed around 5 or 6 men, and those who witnessed and survived the battle described her as fighting “like a demon”, before the enemy army opened fire once again and she was shot in the chest.

She would have died from that, however. Takeko didn’t want the enemy army to use her body as a war trophy, and so she asked her sister to cut off her head and give her an honorable burial. So her sister, 16 year old Yūko, attempted to fulfill the request, but needed the help of either her mother or an Aizu warrior to help complete the task.

After the battle. Yūko took Takeko’s head to a nearby Hōkai temple, and had it buried with honor by the priest under a pine tree. Her weapon was also donated to the temple, as her sister had taken that from the battlefield as well. To this day, it remains as a symbol for “those who refuse to go quietly.”

Yuko survived the war, and is part of the reason why we have so much information to go off of. There’s actually a really rare late life picture of her that Rejected Princesses was able to find, and I’ve got it sourced on my website as well if you’re interested in seeing it.

The Meiji emperor ended up being returned to power, and soon after the samurai class was removed and replaced instead with a western-style national army. This makes Nakano Takeko one of the last official samurai to have existed in Japan.

A monument to Takeko was made and stands beside her grave at the temple.

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