Women in History: Tomoe Gozen


蔀関月筆 Image: Public domain.

Unlike most of the women featured on this blog for Women’s History Month, we don’t know a lot of the details of Tomoe Gozen’s life story.  Even so, what we do know tells us of a woman of incredible strength and bravery.

Tomoe Gozen was a Japanese warrior who lived from 1157 to 1247. This places her on the timeline of history just after Matilda Plantagenet, and makes her the contemporary of Eleanor of Aquitaine, yet she is far less well known in Western culture than she should be. She has appeared as a character in books, film, anime, manga and video games at various times in the last fifty years.  Before that, her story was kept alive in Japanese  festivals and on the stage in classical Kabuki theatre productions.

It was during the Genpei War that Tomoe Gozen won fame as an incredibly strong warrior in Japan’s Samurai tradition.  Female Samurai were called onna-bugeisha, their ranks made up of noble women who fought alongside the men of their clans. Of course, Tomoe Gozen was renowned for being beautiful and strong, but it was her skill as a brave and indefatigable martial warrior in archery, sword fighting and horsemanship and that earned her military reputation and place in history.   

Arising out of long and deep-seated rivalry between the two clans, the Genpei War between Japan’s Minamoto and Taira clans was a bloody and bitter five year long period of conflict which resulted in the defeat of the Taira clan, after which  Minamoto no Yoritomo was established as the first feudal ruler of all Japan, known as the Shogun, in 1192.

Tomoe Gozen’s family was closely associated with the Minamoto clan, and it is believed by many that she was either married to or the concubine of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a powerful Minamoto general who led his clansmen  to victory over the Taira but lost his lifewhen challenged for the leadership by his cousin Yoritomo, After Yoshinaka’s death, she continued to fight, and is known for beheading several key enemies and evading those who wanted to capture her.


Image: Public Domain.  Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912)

The accounts of what happened to Tomoe Gozen after the Genpei war vary. Some say she married a rival warlord, while others say she gave up the martial lifestyle and became a nun.

Regardless of how her life ended, her courage, skill and commitment set her apart from most whom she fought alongside, and earned her place as a hero in the history of the key battles that brought about a turning point in the history of Japan. 

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