Tomoe Gozen - A fearsome Japanese Female Warrior of the 12th Century
In most societies of the past, it was the men who were usually engaged in the bloody business of war. Nevertheless, there are also historical records of women who managed to make a name for themselves in this traditionally male dominated profession. These women were renowned not only as fearsome fighters, but also as cunning strategists and inspirational leaders. In war, they were certainly equal to, if not better than, their male counterparts. Such figures from the ancient world include Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus, Boudica, the Queen of the Iceni, and Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra.
Like most other societies, warfare in feudal Japan was a mostly male affair. Yet, even in this society, there were women warriors, one of the most famous being Tomoe Gozen. It may be worth pointing out first that it was not uncommon for women in feudal Japan to receive martial training. Between the 12 th and 19 th centuries, women of the samurai class were trained to use the sword, the naginata (a polearm with a curved blade on one end), and the bow and arrow. Nevertheless, the role of these female warriors (known as onna bugeisha ) was primarily defensive in nature, as they were expected to protect themselves and their homes in the event of an enemy attack. What set Tomoe apart from her fellow warrior women was that she was deployed on the offensive, rather than the defensive.
Image on Silk of Tomoe Gozen, Edo Era, Tokyo National Museum. ( Wikimedia Commons ).
Interestingly, Tomoe is only mentioned in an epic account of the late 12 th century Genpei War known as The Tale of the Heike . Apart from this literary work, there are no other written records of Tomoe’s life is known, leading some to believe that the heroine is merely a fictional character created by the author of the epic. Regardless, Tomoe is introduced in The Tale of the Heike as such:
Tomoe had long black hair and a fair complexion, and her face was very lovely; moreover she was a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors, and fit to meet either god or devil. Many times had she taken the field, armed at all points, and won matchless renown in encounters with the bravest captains, and so in this last fight [i.e. the Battle of Awazu in 1184], when all the others had been slain or had fled, among the last seven there rode Tomoe.
Tomoe was an attractive woman and fearless warrior and rider. Portrait by Utagawa Kunimasa, Japan 1797. ( Wikimedia Commons )
It is unlikely that anyone today can be certain about Tomoe’s birth and early life. In her appearance in The Tale of Heike , Tomoe is portrayed as serving the samurai Minamoto Yoshinaka. Some, however, have speculated that this was more than a master-servant relationship, and that Tomoe was either Yoshinaka’s wife or one of his mistresses. As recorded in The Tale of the Heike , Tomoe was already an immensely warrior prior to the Battle of Awazu, which pitted Yoshinaka against one of his cousins, Minamoto Yoshitsune.
The battle went badly for Yoshinaka, as he was heavily outnumbered by his enemy. Yoshinaka’s army of 300 strong was reduced by Yoshitsune (who had an army of 6000), to just five warriors, Tomoe included. At this point, Yoshinaka orders Tomoe to leave the battlefield, as he claimed that it would be shameful for him to die with a woman, a reminder that it was still a man’s world out there. Reluctantly, Tomoe obeys Yoshinaka’s command, not before beheading another of the enemy’s warriors. After this, Tomoe disappears from history, and her fate has been speculated by various people.
Statue of Tomoe Gozen and Yoshinaka together, Yoshinaka Museum, Japan. Supplied by Japanese Wikimedia. ( Wikimedia Commons )
In the Genpei Seisuiki , an extended version of The Tale of the Heike , for instance, Tomoe is said to have been defeated by Wada Yoshimori, and was forced to become his concubine. In another story, she is said to have become a nun. In a third story, Tomoe is said to have avenged Yoshinaka by killing his enemies. After that, she took her lord’s head and walked into the sea with it, thus ending her own life, and ensuring that Yoshinaka’s head could not be defiled by his enemies.