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Even Devils Feared to Fight Her: Tomoe Gozen

Updated on March 11, 2016

Tomoe Gozen

By 蔀関月筆 (東京国立博物館所蔵) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By 蔀関月筆 (東京国立博物館所蔵) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Samurai

For hundreds of years, Japan’s feudal era made the country a hotbed of war and battle. The samurai caste rose rapidly, the ninja were everywhere, while daimyos—local warlords—threw their armies against each other in a monstrous game of human chess, just to gain a slight piece of land or avenge an insult either real or imagined. All members of Japanese society were expected to know how to fight, whether for their daimyos or merely to protect themselves, and women were no exception. The ninja had their own special agents in the female kunoichi, but the samurai were not to be outdone, producing hundreds of renowned female samurai and ronin (masterless wandering samurai.)

Of all those recorded, Tomoe Gozen was by far the greatest.

In 1180 A.D., tensions came to an explosive head between the Taira and Minamoto clans; the two groups had long been bitter enemies, but when the throne of the emperor was passed to a two-year old Taira boy instead of rightfully passing to his uncle, Prince Mochihito, a call to arms was raised to overthrow the Taira clan for good. Naturally, the Minamoto were more than happy to assist.

General Minamoto Yoshinaka led his army of samurai against the Taira in a number of celebrated battles. Out of all of those combats, only one samurai stood out repeatedly amongst the blood and carnage: Lady Tomoe Gozen, variously described as Yoshinaka’s wife, assistant or concubine. Either way, she had already been established as a phenomenal fighter, and was bestowed the title “Gozen,” a term of great honor reserved only for renowned female samurai.

Nothing seems to be recorded of Tomoe’s life prior to the Genpai War, leading to speculation that she never existed and had been created as a sort of propaganda tool to terrify the Taira samurai. But, as with Lagertha and Alwilda, it’s highly possible that she did exist, but much of her life has been turned into legend. Like other onna bugeisha (female samurai), Tomoe was a highly capable horsewoman, a skilled archer, and talented with the katana, wakizashi and tanto (the long sword, short sword and dagger used by samurai). Her chief weapon was the naginata, a scythe-like weapon set at the top of a staff typically six feet in length (a nine to twelve foot one was used to unseat samurai from their horses.) Called “the women’s weapon,” it was used by women to keep attackers at a distance, where their strength and height couldn’t be used as an advantage. And Tomoe was very good at it.

Tomoe Gozen by Utagawa Kunimasa

Tomoe Gozen by Utagawa Kunimasa
Tomoe Gozen by Utagawa Kunimasa

There was plenty written about Tomoe during the war; deeply devoted to Yoshinaka, rode by his side into battle. Appearing in full battle armor atop her ferocious horse, Tomoe unleashed a hail of arrows upon the enemy, then charged headlong into the fray, her katana drawn and blinding in the sunlight. Dismounting rapidly, Tomoe would snatch up her naginata and attack, cutting a wide swath through the assembled warriors surrounding her. Yoshinaka was intensely proud of her, and frequently dispatched Tomoe into battle first to rain death and destruction upon the Taira. According to the Heike Mongatai,a record of the war, “Once her sword was drawn, even the gods and the devils feared to fight against her … She was a match for a thousand.”

In one battle, Tomoe was challenged by the Taira clan’s best samurai, Uchida Ieoshi. Mounted on her bellowing horse, Tomoe drew her sword and charged. Uchida spurred his horse on, drawing his own sword. As the blades screamed against each other, Uchida grabbed Tomoe’s arm, trying to pull her out of her saddle. His fingers tangled in her sleeve, ripping the fabric off of her arm. In a rage at being disrobed by a strange man, Tomoe decapitated him on the spot.

With Tomoe’s help, Yoshinaka captured the province of Shinano, then marched into Kyoto to free the dethroned emperor. Soon the Taira clan had been utterly defeated, and Yoshinaka was certain that a grateful emperor would install him as head of the Minamoto family … only to discover that the emperor had installed Yoshinaka’s hated cousin Yoritomo as head of the Minamoto clan instead. Yoshinaka was outraged and declared war on his cousin … a war that would not end well, but one that Tomoe saw to the end.

In 1184, Yoshinaka’s adopted brother Imai led a regiment of soldiers to the river Uji near the province of Awazu to meet the new Yoritomo’s army, only to discover that he was horrifically outnumbered and relentlessly pursued. Upon learning what had happened, Tomoe rushed to the battlefield, routing the enemy samurai until Yoshinaka's brother and his few surviving men were able to cross a bridge. Leaping down from her horse, Tomoe drew her naginata and held the bridge by herself for hours, fighting off the samurai on the narrow bridge and giving Yoshinaka and his few surviving men a chance to regroup.

Unfortunately, Yoshinaka’s army was decimated, and they were soon overrun. Knowing that they were about to die, Yoshinaka ordered Tomoe to retreat. Tomoe wanted to stay and die fighting by his side because she loved him, to which Yoshinaka shouted that he would be deeply ashamed if he was found dead beside a woman … even if that woman was Tomoe, apparently. Perhaps he said that only to save Tomoe’s life, but it she didn’t argue. Saddling her horse, Tomoe raced away and was pursued by a handful of the enemy’s best samurai.

Infuriated, Tomoe wheeled her horse around and galloped full tilt at the samurai in the lead, drawing her katana. Before any of them had a chance to react, Tomoe grabbed the samurai, wrenched him out of his saddle, beheaded him, then raced away, leaving his shocked comrades to watch in silence.

There are many different accounts of what happened to Tomoe after the Battle of Awazu. One story says that she stood with Yoshinaka, dying beside him on the battlefield. Another said that she survived, retiring to a Buddhist monastery and becoming a nun, as many retired female samurai did. The most popular story says that Tomoe returned to the battlefield, found Yoshinaka’s disembodied head, and then carried it into the sea with her as she drowned herself.

Tomoe Gozen works referenced:

Warrior Women, Ronin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011

Women Warriors, David E. Jones 2000

Samurai, Clive Sinclaire 2001

Samurai, Stephen Turnbull 2013

Women Warriors, Teena Apeles 2004


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