Welcome to Kickass Women in History! This month I’m sifting through a lot of internet info trying to sort out myth from fact with regard to Tomoe Gozen, Samurai. This woman fought in the Genpei War and won fame for her feats at the Battle of Awazu in 1184 in Japan.

Tomoe was born sometime around 1157 and married Minamoto no Yoshinaka. He was a general and a samurai, and he appointed Tomoe Gozen as a commander during the Genpei War. The Genpei War was a civil war between the Taira family and the Minamoto family. The defeat of the Taira clan and victory of Minamoto no Yoritomo led to the establishment of the first shogunate.

Tomoe Gozen, by Kikuchi Yosai, ink drawing on yellow paper
Tomoe Gozen, by Kikuchi Yosai

Tomoe Gozen was a “Onna-bugeisha,” a female samurai (the quote below clarifies that as a woman who rode out into battle as opposed to specializing in defence, she was more properly called a “onna-musha”). Trained in martial arts and weapons (especially ranged weapons and a bladed pole weapon called a ko-naginata) to defend the home and family, many of these women fought in battle during the Genpei War.

Recent archeological evidence suggests that women fought on the battlefield in greater numbers than previously thought. This article from by Christobel Hasting details the roles played by women and the recent archeological finds.

Here’s how Hastings describes Gozen’s role in battle:

Particularly interesting about Gozen: She was one of the few women warriors who engaged in offensive battle, known as onna-musha, rather than the defensive fighting more common among traditional onna-bugeisha. In 1184, she led 300 samurai into a fierce battle against 2,000 opposing Tiara clan warriors, and during the Battle of Awazu later that same year, she slayed several adversaries before decapitating the Musashi clan’s leader and presenting his head to her master, General Kiso Yoshinaka. Gozen’s reputation was so high, it’s said Yoshinaka considered her the first true general of Japan.

An epic called The Tale of the Heike (a collection of oral histories compiled in 1371) described our heroine thusly:

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 armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.

No one knows what happened to Tomoe Gozen. sums up some of the theories here:

Some say she was captured by Minamoto no Yoritomo’s henchman Wada Yoshimori during the battle of Kyoto, forced to become his concubine, and then gave birth to the legendary strongman Asahina Saburo Yoshihide. Others say she became a Buddhist nun, reciting sutras on behalf of the late Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka’s soul until her death at the ripe old age of 91. Still others say she avenged Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka by killing his attackers, stealing back Yoshinaka’s head so no one else could defile it, and then walked out into the sea—head in hand—to drown.

The life of Tomoe Gozen is still celebrated in Japan. Every year, Kyoto holds The Festival of the Ages, in which volunteers dress as historical figures and march in a procession. Tomoe Gozen’s life remains an inspiration for manga, video games, film, and literature.

In addition to the sources previously cited, I looked at:

PDF: Women Warriors of Early Japan by Rochelle Nowaki


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