An incredible article by Lesley Downer was published in the Times today: The caged concubines. Those who know the flower and willow world have certainly recognized Downer’s name, as she is one of the foremost non-Japanese experts on geisha (I have loads of books on Japanese culture, kimono and geisha, but her book Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha is still on my wish list — must get it soon). Another expert is Liza Dalby, who lived as a geisha for a year in Kyoto and published her anthropological study Geisha.
The Times article is a veritable treasure trove of shogunal history from the standpoint of the women at Edo Castle. I especially enjoyed this bit, which is surprising new knowledge for me:
With no male guards, the women had to be responsible for protecting the shogun. There were units of women guards skilled with the naginata – the long-handled spear, akin to a halberd. Consisting of a long curved blade as sharp as a razor, fitted to the end of a staff considerably longer than a sword, it gave a woman the chance to get in a good swipe at a man’s legs before he could reach her. Most women of the warrior class were adept with the halberd, but the women of the inner palace were particularly formidable. They studied the art from childhood and prided themselves on their fearlessness and their skill at striking, thrusting, slashing, parrying and blocking. Every woman had a uniform – a thick black broadcloth jacket, stiff black pleated trousers and a black silk cap bound with a white band – and there was a training hall in the palace where they practised.
The black pleated trousers are hakama. The most concise and informative description I could find of naginata is also from Wikipedia, whereas the Naginata.org website has a neat painting of a woman with a naginata and photos of practitioners.