Tomoe Gozen – the powerful female samurai few know about

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Tomoe Gozen is a name more people should know about. In medieval Japan, a period when women rarely took up arms except in times of necessity, Tomoe is one of the few who dedicated her life to becoming a warrior, and she was spectacular at it.

Tomoe lived during a period of great turmoil known as the Genpei War, which took place between 1180 and 1185. This era was the catalyst for the rise of the samurai warrior caste, the beginning of the Kamakura shogunate, and marked the decline of the emperor to a symbolic position. The war began as a clash between two families for dominance over the imperial throne, the aristocratic Taira clan from the capital Kyoto and the rural Minamoto clan from the outer provinces. When the Taira placed a child on the imperial throne, a disgruntled prince made a call to arms to the Minamoto clan. Initially, the Taira had the advantage, but after a series of defeats, Minamoto turned the tide of the war, ultimately ending with the naval battle of Dan-no-ura.

The story of the Genpei War was recorded in Japan’s great war epic, The Tale of the Heike, which has had a huge influence on Japanese culture, comparable to the Iliad in the west. Much of Tomoe’s life is unknown; the Heike is where we learn most of what we know about Tomoe. What we do know about her is that she loved Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Some accounts say they were married, while others say she was merely a concubine or a “female attendant.” In Heike, she is described as being “especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features.” She was said to be an excellent horse rider, taming even the most ill-tempered horse. “She was a remarkably strong archer, and swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand.” Yoshinaka was so overtaken by her courage and ability, he made her one of his captains. Tomoe was sent on many dangerous scout missions and fought in multiple battles. She defeated many opponents and collected their heads, which were seen as trophies during the period.

As the war progressed, the Taira were beaten back to the western provinces and the Minamoto clan was on the verge of securing the entire country. Yoshinaka captured Kyoto and conspired to become Shogun and to steal the leadership of the Minamoto clan from his cousin Minamoto no Yoritomo. Yoritomo responded by sending his brothers to kill Yoshinaka. They caught up to Yoshinaka and Tomoe in 1184 at the Battle of Awazu. It was there Yoshinaka and his small band of forces prepared to make their final stand.

According to the Heike, they were desperately outnumbered and when their numbers were down to only five, Yoshinaka ordered Tomoe to flee. Tomoe was reluctant to do so, instead, she charged the enemy and killed a renowned warrior named Onda no Hachiro Moroshige. Yoshinaka was killed, but Tomoe’s fate is uncertain as accounts differ. She either departed to the eastern provinces, died with her husband, became the concubine of a rival warrior named Wada Yoshimori, or retired from being a warrior and became a Buddhist nun.

Regardless of Tomoe Gozen’s ultimate fate, her reputation has captured imaginations over the centuries. While there were many things unknown about her, none deny her valor and skill. She continues on as a popular figure in Japanese culture and has been featured in fiction, film, anime, manga, and video games.

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