She looks out onto the battlefield. Her hair brushes against her neck and her horse shifts under her. She is one of the half-dozen left fighting, and though she has been ordered off the battlefield, she grips her bow tighter. As she looks at the advancing enemy, some thirty of them in all, she knows, without a doubt, that she can fight them. She knows that she doesn’t need any help. And she charges.
Tomoe Gozen, a legendary figure first mentioned in the 14th century epic Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), is perhaps one of the most famous female samurai, known as onna-bugeisha, to have come out of Japanese history or mythology. Though not much is known about her—and beyond her mention in Tale of the Heike there is no proof that she ever existed at all—Gozen has become a major cultural touchstone, inspiring plays, manga, and everything in between.
The Tale of the Heike chronicles the 12th century Genpei War, a period of Japanese history when feudal clans, namely the Taira and the Minamoto, were beginning to consolidate power. Gozen herself fought for Kiso no Yoshinaka, the relative of clan leader Minamoto no Yoritomo, and supported his bid to take control of the clan. She was, by many accounts, his mistress, but that wasn’t why she traveled with him. Not only was she a valuable part of his force, “whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armour, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valour than any of his other warriors.”
Gozen was beautiful, with “white skin, long hair, and charming features” (though it bears mentioning that beauty standards differed: she likely had the lacquered black teeth of the nobility), but most of her descriptions centre on her fighting skills. She was “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 could handle unbroken horses with “superb skill,” could ride “down perilous descents” without accident, and was an all around unmatched warrior.
Not only was Gozen as talented as one would expect from a warrior made legend, she was also, as far as we can tell from historical records, remarkable for her time. According to Ellis Amdur, a researcher on Japanese martial history and an instructor of two schools of archaic Japanese martial arts, women were not drafted into the military, but those of the noble class who were able to fight did sometimes become warriors. “One shouldn’t imagine that there were squads of women, or that women were marching in ranks with men,” he says. If a woman happened to be a talented fighter—and well-liked enough by those in charge—“there was a place for her, because she was useful.”
Though some political positions were available to women, those who had the most freedom were from this developing warrior class. These were the women that, according to Amdur, “by force of character stood out.” Despite the fame of a select few, he says that there “are almost no mentions of women fighting on a battlefield. There are almost no pictorial representations of women fighting on a battlefield.” Gozen’s fame, then, has catapulted her to folk hero status, a figure, says Amdur, with as much cultural relevance as Davey Crocket in North America. Though the existence of Gozen herself cannot be verified, most events in The Tale of the Heike are historically accurate, and the remains of another of Yoshinaka’s attendants, also mentioned in the text, were found. The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped Gozen from becoming a powerful image, the symbol of the warrior woman, and almost more prominent than actual historical figures like Yamakawa Futaba, who fought in the 19th Century Boshin War before becoming an educator and advocate for the education of women, or Nakano Takeko, who took a bullet to the chest while leading a corps of women in the Boshin War.
“I think she would be very similar to Joan of Arc. That she has as much a symbolic, magical, almost talismanic power, as anything else,” says Amdur. And indeed, to this day several martial arts schools claim Gozen as their founder, even though they were established several hundred years after Gozen’s time. Japanese schools will often, “to give them a kind of historical cache, pick some figure from history and say ‘well this is the founder,’” says Amdur. This practice also allowed schools to communicate something about their values, and this may be the reason that many schools focusing on the naginata—a curved blade on a seven to eight foot pole usually reserved for women—chose Gozen particularly. Though she never favoured that specific weapon, “if you have a naginata school that claims Gozen as the founder, then it’s very likely that there was an emphasis on training women,” says Amdur.
Gozen’s final recorded moments happened during the battle of Awazu in 1184, where Yoshinaka, anticipating his defeat, ordered her off the battlefield. She refused to leave, instead choosing to fight one “last battle for His Lordship to watch.” She galloped into a group of thirty riders, and rode up alongside their leader Onda no Hachiro Moroshige, a man renowned for his strength. From there she “seized him in a powerful grip, pulled him down against the pommel of her saddle, held him motionless, twisted off his head, and threw it away.” Reports of her fate vary, The Tale of the Heike stating that she “discarded armour and helmet and fled toward the eastern provinces,” never to be heard from again, while others maintain that she married an enemy commander and became a nun after his death.
Since her first mention, Gozen has consistently been drawn upon for inspiration, appearing in classical theatre, 17th century ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and, more recently, in books, films, television shows, and manga. She appears in the period drama Yoshitsune, and serves as the inspiration for Tomoe Ame, a feline samurai in Stan Sakai’s comic book series Usagi Yojimbo. Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen trilogy, written in the 1980s, stays fairly close to the source material but injects a healthy dose of Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy.
Writers, however, are not content to keep Gozen in her original time. She is resurrected as the character Saisei in the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, fighting with a naginata (and, unfortunately, a whole lot of underboob). Basically invulnerable, she is still as overtly feminine as the original legend described, sometimes using cherry blossoms to overwhelm her opponent. In Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series—along with the 2010 film of the same name—she is one of the characters, along with Francisco Pizarro, Mark Twain, and many others, who are brought back to life in the titular purgatory. Tomoe Gozen has so completely captured the hearts of all who hear her story, that it seems unlikely she will ever be forgotten. Whether as a samurai in the Genpei Wars, or a reincarnated warrior ready to take on new worlds, Gozen, both as a woman and as a symbol of strength undiminished by femininity, remains timeless.
Top image: Edo period woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi