In medieval Japan, a civil war slashed across the country. The Taira (Heike) clan of samurai, founded in 825, wielded tremendous sway over the courts and the emperors for generations. But in 1181 when powerful leader Taira Kiyomori died, opposition rose to fight the clan in its weakened state. The Minamoto (Genji) clan, led by Minamoto Yoritomo, emerged as the strongest opponent. Yoritomo had personal stakes: Years earlier three of his elders had helped Taira Kiyomori, only to be later betrayed and murdered. Yorimoto himself was spared because he was a child. In 1181, he was a child no more, but a fierce warrior with a blood grudge.
The Heike Monogatari, known in English as The Tale of the Heike, is an epic Japanese tale comparable to The Iliad in the West. Its true events have blended with legend and its heroes loom large in poetry, literature, and popular culture. Few loom larger than woman warrior Tomoe Gozen.
Female fighters, onna-musha, were not unheard of in medieval Japan. With husbands away at war, wives and mothers were often trained to protect their homes and defend their families. Tomoe, however, was one of a few women who fought offensively on the battlefields beside the men. The Heike Monogatari introduced her as elite warrior on horseback with a sword and bow.
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
Little can be confirmed of her early life. Indeed, Tomoe Gozen is a title and not a name. “Tomoe” refers to the comma-like design that appeared on her armor and “gozen” can be translated as “young lady,” though it became most often used for onna-musha.
Tomoe was raised alongside the high-ranking men of the Minamoto family, possibly the daughter of a general and a prized wet-nurse. As a foster sister, she did not threaten the patriarchal line of inheritance, so she was exempt from the competition for power among the men. Her devotion to the Minamoto family was unquestioned, however, specifically to samurai Minamoto Yoshinaka.
In some tellings of the tale, she was Yoshinaka’s servant. In others, she was his lover, his concubine, or his wife. The romances and plays, of course, often opt for the latter interpretation.
This civil war between the Taira and Minamoto, called the Genpei War, raged for five years. The Japanese civilians suffered terribly as the frequent battles only deepened the devastation caused by natural disasters. Earthquakes, typhoons, plagues, and famine struck the nation during those five years, and still the seats of power remained in flux with war.
By 1183, the tide had turned in favor of the Minamoto forces when they marched into the imperial capital of Kyoto. The Taira clan fled, abandoning the stronghold they’d controlled for hundreds of years. It was Yoshinaka who stood triumphant. He punctuated this victory by resurrecting an old honorific and declaring himself shogun, or commander-in-chief.