Museum  December 2, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

Female Warriors From the Land of the Rising Sun

Museo d’Arte Orientale

Chikanobu Toyohara, Flowers of Edo Series Japan, Meiji Period (1868-1917), 1889.

A new exhibition is not only to shedding light on a lesser-known aspect of Japanese culture, female warriors, but is also pushing to include in the definition of “warrior” women beyond the military environment. On October 18, fierce female warriors from the Land of the Rising Sun arrived at the Museo d’Arte Orientale (MAO) in Turin. The new exhibition, Female Warriors From the Land of the Rising Sun, in collaboration with the Yoshin Ryu Association, celebrates Japanese female warriors, their historical role, and their legacy. The exhibition is nothing less than ambitious.

Tosei Gusoku, Armor breastplate. Lacquered steel, silk, brass, yak hair, alloys of copper, leather. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868). Signed Myōchin Munichika.
Museo d’Arte Orientale

Tosei Gusoku, Armor breastplate. Lacquered steel, silk, brass, yak hair, alloys of copper, leather. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868). Signed Myōchin Munichika.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tamaori Hime, wife of Atsumori by the sea with naginata. Chapter 12 of the Genji kumo ukiyoe awase. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868), 1845-46.
Museo d’Arte Orientale

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tamaori Hime, wife of Atsumori by the sea with naginata. Chapter 12 of the Genji kumo ukiyoe awase. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868), 1845-46.

Nomura Ran, Hannya No Theater mask. Painted wood. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868).
Museo d’Arte Orientale

Nomura Ran, Hannya, Noh Theater mask. Painted wood. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868).

Princess Leia Organa Elite Series Doll, Star Wars: A New Hope, 2017, Disney.
Museo d’Arte Orientale

Princess Leia Organa Elite Series Doll, Star Wars: A New Hope, 2017, Disney.

Onna-bugeisha Jingasa. Bushi caste woman headgear. Lacquer, wood, cotton. Japan, Edo Period.
Museo d’Arte Orientale

Onna-bugeisha Jingasa. Bushi caste woman headgear. Lacquer, wood, cotton. Japan, Edo Period.

The exhibition opens with historical and artistic objects that were part of the onna-bugeisha culture. The term onna-bugeisha refers to noble Japanese female warriors who belonged to the samurai class (bushi), were trained in martial arts and weaponry, and were therefore ready to fight along with their male counterparts in case of need. One of the most well-known onna-bugeisha was Tomoe Gozen (c. 1157-1247), a celebrated warrior who served under General Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the last feudal Japanese military government.

Among the most interesting pieces on display, there are a Tosei Gusoku, a breastplate of the Myochin school, and a Jingasa, a headgear, both made for women of the bushi class during the Edo period (1603-1868). Weapons such as knives, katana, kama, a sickle-style blade, and naginata, a pole weapon traditionally associated with the onna-bugeisha and frequently found as part of the dowry of a samurai’s daughter, are also on display. Masks from the Noh theatre show the impact of suffering and anguish on women’s faces.

Museo d’Arte Orientale

Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, The Rose of Versailles, Lady Oscar, 1979. Pencils on paper.

Aside from these objects, visitors are presented with unexpected examples of female warriors. Figurines, manga, and original sketches of pop-culture heroines such as Sailor Moon, Lady Oscar, Megami Athena, Wonder Woman, and General Leia Organa are also presented. In this section, visitors familiar with the manga The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda will be delighted to see a handmade, fully embroidered copy of Lady Oscar’s uniform jacket, crafted by the female students of the Fashion and Couture Italian Academy in Turin. The exhibition ends with forty portraits of “warriors” who, in different ways, times, and countries, have fought their battles. The portraits, the majority of which were created by female artists, are printed on lanterns and displayed in a dedicated room. 

Curators Fabrizio Modina and Daniela Crovella are in agreement. Female Warriors From the Land of the Rising Sun is an ambitious project because it brings together traditional museum objects, such as katana and woodblock prints, with pop-culture icons, a quite unusual mix. Moreover, as Modina underlines, “In a historical and cultural context where femicides are daily occurrences, this exhibition wants to convey a profound message through simple language.” “Is it possible to tell the true story of women and women warriors without entering into sterile, pointless debates?” continues Crovella, “The contrast between male and female, north and south, good and bad, winners and losers welcomes stereotypical attitudes and behaviors that end up damaging any socio-political context. We wanted to challenge this.”

Museo d’Arte Orientale

Katana. Steel, lacquered wood, copper alloys, silk, leather. Japan, Edo Period (1603-1868).

Female Warriors From the Land of the Rising Sun offers an unmissable perspective into what being a female warrior means. By presenting examples that go beyond the stereotypical definition of the word, it becomes evident that being a warrior is not just achieved through physical power and the skillful use of weapons, but by challenging the cultural and political environment that frequently cage women into predetermined roles. By offering examples from real and fictional worlds, traditional art as well as pop-culture, Female Warriors From the Land of the Rising Sun raises the bar of what art can teach us. The heroines presented in the exhibition challenged society in different ways, times, and places and conquered their freedom on their own terms. “The exhibition is dedicated to all those women around the world, aristocratic or low-born, real or fictional, who have been fighting for their physical and psychological wellbeing. This exhibition is for all of them,” stated Daniela Crovella, “For all of us.”

Female Warriors From the Land of the Rising Sun is on show at the Museo d’Arte Orientale (MAO) in Turin until March 1st, 2020.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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