A wonderful image by the enigmatic print-maker Toshusai Sharaku (fl.circa 1794-1795) depicting a popular Japanese kabuki actor in one of the female roles he was famous for heads Bonhams sale of Japanese Art on November 6 during Asian Art Week in London.

Estimated to sell for £70,000 to £80,000 the print shows the actor Segawa Tomisaburo II in the role of Yadorigi, the wife of Ogishi Kurando, in the play Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga (The Iris Soga [brothers] Story of the Bunroku Period), performed at the Miyako Theatre in May 1794, published by Tsutaya Juzaburo.

Comparable versions of this image are in the Tokyo National Museum: British Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Bruxelles; Art Institute of Chicago; Staatliches Museum fur Volkerkunde, Munich; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Nihon Kikin, Tokyo and the Ota Memorial Museum, Tokyo.

Continuing the female bias among the top items of this sale is an extremely unusual set of armour for a female warrior of the late Edo Period, 19th century. The armour includes a very heavy eight-plate low rounded helmet in russet iron, and uses a combination of copper, iron, and mixed iron and leather plates and black lacquer joined by mail to protect the human body inside. It is estimated to sell for £30,000 to £40,000.

When one says the word samurai, most imagine an armoured man fiercely wielding a katana (a fighting sword).  Nevertheless, women samurai were a small but very important element among the Japanese upper class samurai. Some of them like Empress Jingu, Nakano Takeko, Hojo Masako and Tomoe Gozen had a great impact on Japanese history. A quote about the last from the epic account of the Genpei War (1180–1185) states: “Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armour, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valour than any of his other warriors.”


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