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Tomoe Gozen, onna-musha, female samurai

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 8/12/2022

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

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.

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Yoshinaka and his troops pursued the fleeing Taira clan northeast toward Mizushima Bay. This rash action would prove to be his undoing for the Taira were in retreat but not defeated. Another battled broke out and Yoshinaka was soundly beaten. He fled back to the conquered Kyoto. 


The Minamoto clan could not overlook this strategic error. Yoshinaka was deemed too impulsive a commander and his cousin Yoritomo did not want to compete with him for rule. Yoritomo sent assassins to eliminate Yoshinaka.


It is here that the tales return to the devoted and powerful Tomoe Gozen, now in her late 20s. Yoshinaka’s true end is debated, but certain is the Battle of Awazu on Feb. 21, 1184. Yoshinaka’s dwindling forces of only 300 fought against his cousin Yoritomo’s 6,000. “Then Kiso [Yoshinaka] and his three hundred fell upon their six thousand opponents in the death fury, cutting and slashing and swinging their blades in every direction,” reported the Heike Monogatari. Tomoe was, of course, at Yoshinaka’s side. Yet, despite her heroics, she was still a woman in a patriarchal culture.


But now they were reduced to but five survivors, and among these Tomoe still held her place. Calling her to him Kiso [Yoshinaka] said: “As you are a woman, it were better that you now make your escape. I have made up my mind to die, either by the hand of the enemy or by mine own, and how would Yoshinaka be shamed if in his last fight he died with a woman?”

“Perhaps he wanted her to go and commit ritual suicide,” posited Leah Silverman in an article for All That’s Interesting, “or to be the one to take the news of his death to his family, or that she wasn’t up to the fight, or even that he felt it would be shameful for him to die in the presence of a woman—or all of the above.”


In every account of the events, Tomoe refused this final order, regardless of Yoshinaka’s motivations. Instead, she wished to stand beside the commander she served. The Heike Monogatari depicted her calling out for one last worthy opponent so that she could proudly die in battle. “Tomoe would not forsake him, but still feeling full of fight, she replied: ‘Ah, for some bold warrior to match with, that Kiso [Yoshinaka] might see how fine a death I can die.’”


When the enemy appeared—either rebels or opposing Minamoto troops—Tomoe rode at them head on, seized their leader, and beheaded him on the pommel of her saddle. Who she beheaded is debated; that she beheaded someone seems certain. Some stories say she presented this head to Yoshinaka as a prize. Yoshinaka died in this last stand, as he declared, either by his own hands or those of an enemy. 

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Which brings us to the final uncertainty of Tomoe’s life is: Did she, too, die in this battle at just 28 years old, or did she live on?


The Heike Monogatari said she ran after the beheading. “Then stripping off her armour she fled away to the Eastern Provinces,” the epic recounted. The Genpei Seisuiki, an extended version of the Heike Monogatari, claimed she was then captured by an enemy general, Wada Yoshimori, who took her as a concubine in the hopes she would birth formidable soldier sons. Other accounts say, despite her gender, Yoshimori beheaded the dangerous warrior who wielded bow and sword.


Yet other tales insist that Tomoe Gozen escaped imprisonment and found sanctuary in a nunnery where she lived peacefully until her 90s. No matter the end of her life, her legend has proven immortal..


“Although we don’t know much about Tomoe apart from accounts of her victories in battle, she represents a female resilience and courage that historical records often skip over,” wrote Tia Shah for Girl Museum, Inc.


Two centuries after her life, a famous Japanese dance-drama dramatically reimagined the tale of Tomoe. “This Noh drama portrays Lady Tomoe as a woman who yearned for and loved her master, Kiso Yoshinaka, with all her heart and expressed her sincere love straightforwardly and earnestly,” read the summary on The “Although her power and toughness on the field of battle are overwhelming and even demonic, they rather emphasize her deep love for Yoshinaka.”


Tomoe Gozen has appeared as a character in manga, podcasts, films, and video games. Her likeness appears each year in the Jidai Matsuri, or Festival of the Ages, at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. Her story endures so vibrantly because, she did not simply stand out among women. She stood out among all samurai. Leah Silverman wrote, “What’s truly impressive about the legend of Tomoe Gozen is not just that she was a female samurai, but that she was an elite warrior—and one that even other warriors feared.”


Sources: The Heike Monogatari Taira family, Heike monogatari

Samurai Woman 1184-1187 by Stephen Turnbull

All That’s Interesting: The Legend of Tomoe Gozen: Japan’s Most Fearsome Female Samurai

University of Hawai’I at Hilo: Women Warriors of Early Japan

Ancient Origins: Tomoe Gozen – A fearsome Japanese Female Warrior of the 12th Century

Wikipedia: TomoeGozenShogun

World History Encyclopedia: Genpei War

Girl Museum: Trailblazers – The Age of Girls: Tomoe Gozen

The Tomoe