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Tomoe Gozen

Updated on November 30, 2015
Tomoe Goizen on a horse.
Tomoe Goizen on a horse.

Tomoe Gozen: Fact or Fiction?

After watching the movie mini-series Riverworld, last night, which is based on a nine-book series by Philip Jose’ Farmer, I was curious about one of the principle characters. The movie is liberally sprinkled with historical figures; Sam Clemens (Mark Twain), Sir Richard Francis Burton, Francisco Pizzaro and one or two others. Given that the aforementioned men did in fact exist, I wondered if Tomoe Gozen, the skilled female samurai in the movie, was also a factual figure. Given my own interest in martial arts and Japanese history and culture, I just had to follow up on my query.

We all know (all us nerds, anyway) that female warriors are a popular theme in manga, anime and video games. Most of these characters have little to no historical basis, and some of them are just ridiculous (Queen’s Blade, anyone?). Unfortunately, as is often the case with legendary figures, solid information on Tomoe Gozen is difficult to come by. Probably due to the general absence of recognized female warriors in Japanese history, Tomoe Gozen stands out and is the subject of many legends, stories and at least one kabuki play.

If she really existed, which is itself the subject of some scholarly debate, Tomoe Gozen (Gozen is a title, not a name) was the wife, or possibly some other sort of retainer, of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, of the Minamoto clan. The most often quoted description of Tomoe can be found in the Heike Monogatari (The Take of the Heike), a work of Japanese literature which chronicles the events of the Genpei War (1180 – 1185). I will not reproduce the entire passage here, but the Heike Monogatari describes Tomoe as being very beautiful, the equal of any man in combat, and an excellent horsewoman. It also has Yoshinaka sending her as captain of his first battle group whenever there was fighting.

Minamoto no Yoshinaka and Tomoe Gozen fought in the Genpei War, which was the end of many years of conflict between The Taira and Minamoto clans. After more or less winning the war and driving the Taira clan to the far west of Honshu, it seems Yoshinaka decided he should get to lead the Minamoto clan. Agreement was not unanimous; Yoritomo Minamoto (Yoshinaka’s cousin, I think) took exception to that idea. Yoritomo’s forces fought and defeated Yoshinaka (and Tomoe) in 1184.

Every source I checked seems to agree that Yoshinaka and Tomoe were some of the last of their faction standing at the end of the battle, and that Yoshinaka urged Tomoe to flee so as to avoid capture and a (probably shameful) death. Here the legends surrounding Tomoe Gozen diverge. It would be romantic to think Yoshinaka wanted his wife (or whatever) to live and not die with him because he loved her, but it is really difficult to say. It seems Yoshinaka himself wanted to avoid the shame of being captured, so he committed seppuku (ritual suicide by self-disembowelment).  It sounds like a painful, nasty way to die. Possibly, Tomoe stayed to help her husband with his suicide by cutting off his head when the pain became too great for dignity (another part of the ritual of seppuku). Other accounts have Tomoe attacking and killing Onda Hachirô Moroshige, a warrior of the opposing army, to give Yoshinaka time to do what he needed to do. Then, Tomoe fled, either with the head of the warrior she killed, or with the head of Yoshinaka. Whether she then threw herself into the sea along with Yoshinaka’s head, or became a nun, is also unclear.

So, to recap, I do not know for sure if Tomoe was a real person, or just a famous legend. Assuming she did exist, I do not know if she was the wife of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, or just an attendant and leader among his samurai. I also do not know if she died after her lord was defeated in battle, or if she went on to choose a life of quiet contemplation. What I do know is that Tomoe Gozen continues to be an inspiring and popular figure in Japanese culture, and that she was a bad-@#$! 


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      Dominique 6 years ago

      This passage could only be enhanced by reading it whilst listening to the Toho Koto Society Nami ( then go to the music samples). Thank you. Your pensive musings of a Japanese female warrior who fought without shame or surrender is something that fulfills many a female (oh, and probably male) fantasy...