Tomoe Gozen | Samurai & Onna Bugeisha | Learn More

image of tomoe gozen

When thinking of samurai, we often think of fierce male warriors, but there is one dignified female warrior by the name of Tomoe Gozen who appears in the samurai chronicles in the later half of the 12th century. She was said to be an expert martial artist, going on to become a teacher before playing a role of a more military nature. 

While it was not uncommon for women in feudal Japan to receive martial arts training between the 9th and 12th centuries, women in the samurai class were trained to not only use the sword, but also the naginata as well as the bow and arrow. Most female warriors primarily served defensively to protect their homes in the event of an enemy attack. Read on to learn more about what made Samurai Tomoe so special when compared to her other female peers.

What Sets Her Apart

What sets Tomoe Gozen apart from her fellow warrior women was her training for offensive skirmishes rather than the defensive scenarios many others were prepared for. Even though she is a unique figure in Japanese history, and one of the most distinct Onna Bugeisha, she is only ever mentioned in the Tale of Heike — a story from the Genpei War of the 12th century. 

There aren’t any other written records of Tomoe Gozen’s life, and this has led many historians to question the legitimacy of her existence.

What Are Onna Bugeisha?

The Onna Bugeisha were a type of female warrior that were trained from among the Japanese nobility. These were exclusively women that would fight alongside samurai men when they were needed. They were considered members of the samurai class and followed the Bushido code as the men did. Tomoe Gozen was one Onna Bugeisha icon along with Nakano Takero and Hōjō Masako.

Who Is Samurai Tomoe?

In the tale of Heike, Tomoe Gozen is described as having black hair and fair skin — so strikingly beautiful that she stood out. She was also noted as being a fearless rider, one who was skilled with a horse and possibly more skilled than many of her male counterparts. The functionality of her bow whilst riding at fast speeds was as dexterous as if she were standing on flat ground — fit to meet either God or Devil on the battlefield.

Given what little evidence we have on Gozen’s existence, we know nothing about her childhood or early life. We understand from the tale of Heike that she would wind up serving the samurai lord Minamoto Yoshinaka in the Genpei War between the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan. It has been speculated that Tomoe Gozen was just Yoshinaka’s wife, mistress, or servant, but there are a few instances of battle during the story that dispute that theory.

Samurai Tomoe in Battle

Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada

The first instance in which we see Tomoe Gozen in battle is when she was deployed by Yoshinaka in the battle of Yokota-Kawara in 1181. It was during this battle that Gozen proved she could stand just as tall as her male counterparts, decapitating seven men and placing their heads on pikes so that all would know of her skill. Her presence on the battlefield became so significant that the Minamoto clan entrusted her to lead a force of a thousand men at the Battle of Tonamiyama in 1183.

While the battle may have been a glorious affair, it resulted in the deaths of many leaders in the Minamoto clan. In fact, it is said that out of 6,000 men, only five survived. Amongst those five was Tomoe Gozen, sword in hand, ready to face down the oncoming enemy regardless of the odds. By this point she had already earned a fearsome reputation and was known for going up against men with such ferocity that it was hard to distinguish her from a male samurai. However, Yoshinaka ordered her to leave the battlefield, claiming that it would bring him shame if he died with a woman by his side.

The Fate of Yoshinaka

samurai tomoe on horseback tomoe gozen riding into battle

Leaving Yoshinaka with only four men at his side seemed a pointless stand, but it highlighted the difference between the status of men and women in ancient Japan. The idea that feudal Japan was very much a man’s world, despite women taking up swords, is pervasive throughout the story. 

Reluctantly, Tomoe Gozen obeyed her master’s orders, but she still killed several approaching enemies as she left the battlefield. In another version of the story, Samurai Tomoe killed additional men after seeking the permission of Yoshinaka to honor him with more victories. Gozen supposedly strode into the oncoming enemy horde, singled out the strongest and most reputed men amongst them, and beheaded them.

More to the Story

painting of yoshinaka

In an extended version of the Tale of Heike, Tomoe Gozen was defeated by Wada Yoshimori, a vassal military commander of the Kamakura Shogunate who came into conflict with Gozen after the death of Minamoto Yoshinaka. She wasn’t killed however, but forced to become his concubine. 

Another story suggests that Tomoe Gozen became a nun and lived the remainder of her days mostly in peace. A third story depicts Samurai Tomoe avenging the death of Minamoto Yoshinaka by slaying his enemies, although we don’t know whether she did this alone through the use of deception and assassinations, or whether she raised armies to wage war. Her fate, however, ultimately remains a mystery to us. 

Other Famous Onna Bugeisha

In addition to Tomoe Gozen, another famous female warrior from Japanese history is Nakano Takeko, a woman who we have a little more credible information on. We know that she was born in the Aizu region sometime in the 19th century when the ruling Tokugawa shogunate was on its last legs. They were deep at war with the Japanese imperial court, a war known as the Boshin War. 

Takeko studied martial arts and sword fighting from a young age in Edo, now modern day Tokyo, and went on to become a skilled instructor in the use of the naginata. She had so much talent with her blade that her teacher actually adopted her as his own. He tried to marry her later, prompting Takeko to relocate back to her home in Aizu in the mid-1800s. 

History During Takeko’s Time

onna bugeisha female warrior

It was during this time that the Tokugawa Shogunate began its decline after nearly 300 years of domination. The Tokugawa Shogunate actually surrendered in May 1868, but it had a massive following of loyalists who refused to accept defeat. Takeko was one of these loyalists, and she joined the army with her mother and sister. They made a number of stands, repelling the Japanese Imperials from Aizu.

In the Battle of Aizu, which took place in 1868, Takeko formed her own independent unit of 20 female warriors armed with the naginata. It was this group that would be retrospectively known as the Joshitai, or the Women’s Army. It was here that Takeko killed five of the Japanese Imperials before taking a bullet to the chest. In her dying moments, she requested that her sister take her head so that the enemy would not have the honor of claiming it themselves. 

Her sister agreed and beheaded her, taking her head to a temple in Hokai-ji and burying it beneath a pine tree. The Tokugawa Shogunate was eventually overcome by the Japanese Imperials and the women of Takeko’s band of warriors were either killed or committed seppuku in solidarity.

Empress Jingu | Onna Bugeisha

While Tomoe Gozen and Nakano Takeki were later samurai women, the oldest recorded account of Onna Bugeisha in Japanese history includes Empress Jingu. There is a story from the first century that depicted her as a consort to Emperor Chuai. She served Japan until the Emperor died in the year 269, whereupon her son Ojin ascended the throne. 

According to legend, Empress Jingu was different from Tomoe Gozen and Nakano Takeki in one important way — she had divine powers. Considered as something of a shaman, she used mystical jewels to control the tides. Affecting the ocean allowed her to consider invasion of other nations. She settled on leading a force to Korea to gain new land and riches.

The Taking of Korea

empress-jingu-taking-korea

Some legends say she was able to conquer the nation without spilling a drop of blood, while others resolutely state the opposite. As you can imagine, the notion that she was able to conquer Korea was widely rejected. Still, there is some evidence that Japan did gain a foothold in Korea, ruling over some of the southern territories by the 4th century.

Another fantasized tale states that, when Empress Jingu went to battle in Korea, she was actually pregnant, but her son Ojin wouldn’t be born until she returned to Japan three years later. Some say that Ojin was actually the Buddhist God of War, Hachiman, and willfully remained in her womb for three years to give her the time she needed to conquer Korea. 

The Power of Empress Jingu

Empress Jingu, despite far-fetched accounts, is still depicted in Japan as a powerful entity and warrior, representing their colonial aspirations. In fact, she was at one point featured on Japan’s paper money in 1881. As the first woman to be featured on the bank note in Japan, she holds a high place of honor in Japanese mythology and history. 

Her final resting place is unknown, but there is a ceremonial tomb designated to her at Misasagi-cho in Nara. 

Samurai Women of Japan

Regardless of the truth surrounding the stories of Empress Jingu, Tomoe Gozen, and Nakano Takeko, these women have inspired many generations of Japanese people. Both men and women alike know and revere their stories and strive to emulate their values.

Some take on the training of a modern samurai, learning how to use the katana, wakizashi, and tanto blades — even though there is no modern use for them. If you wish to join in the appreciation of Japanese history and in the legends of Samurai Tomoe, Nakano, and Jingu, explore Swords of Northshire for more legends from ancient history.

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