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Tsuruhime

Japan’s legendary female warrior was a priest of Ōyamazumi Shrine.

Tsuruhime

Name in Japanese: 大祝鶴姫
Pronunciation: ōhōri tsuruhime
Period: 1526–1543

Tsuruhime was the daughter of Ōhōri Yasumochi, the chief priest of Ōyamazumi Shrine. She was born in 1526 in the Warring States period, when each region of Japan was governed by its native warlord who frequently fought with his neighbours. Since its founding in 594, the shrine was sacred to warriors who left weapons and armour there in tribute. From an early age, she trained with her two older brothers in the martial arts specific to the maritime clans of the Inland Sea.

The island of Ōmishima itself was sacred land. It was under the control of the Kōno clan based in today’s Matsuyama. In 1534, the growing power of Ōuchi Yoshitaka, who governed Kyushu and Chūgoku, led to war between the Ōuchi and Kōno clans. Tsuruhime’s brothers were both killed in the fighting. In 1541, when Tsuruhime was fifteen years old, her father died of illness, so she inherited the position of chief priest, and when the Ōuchi attacked Ōmishima itself, she led the defence of the island. To rally support, she proclaimed herself the avatar of Myōjin of Mishima, a powerful deity of the shrine, and at the head of her army, she drove off the Ōuchi invasion.

Four months later the Ōuchi made another attempt, and Tsuruhime led her forces out to attack the enemy ships. During the battle, she boarded the flagship of Ohara Takakoto, the Ōuchi general, challenging him to a duel, in the manner favoured in the early Warring States period. Although Takakoto mocked her, she fought and killed him. Her forces then drove off the enemy ships with the grenades used by the maritime clans in the shipboard warfare.

Two years later when Tsuruhime was seventeen, a fleet led by the Ōuchi’s retainer, Sue Harukata, inflicted a defeat on the Kōno clan forces. In the battle Tsuruhime’s fiancé, Ochi Yasunari, was killed. Tsuruhime defeated the Ōuchi in an ambush, and then in grief for the loss of Yasunari, she drowned herself in the sea.

In the museum at Ōyamazumi Shrine, there’s a small suit of armour said to have been used by Tsuruhime. It’s listed as a National Treasure of Japan.

The Tsuruhime Festival is held in her honour, with a young woman dressed as Tsuruhime, and races in the boats used by the maritime clans.

However, the story of Tsuruhime was unknown even to the people of Ōmishima until Mishima Yasukiyo, a descendant of the Ōhōri family, wrote a novel “The Sea, the Woman and the Armour: Jeanne d’Arc in Setouchi”, in 1966. The whole story was largely made up based on two unreliable grounds, a self-serving book called The Chronicles of the Ōhōri Family, and the breastplate, said to be designed for a woman with no basis in fact. Furthermore, Ohara Takakoto is known to have survived the war in which he was allegedly killed.

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