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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Women in History: Khutulun

Today’s ‘Woman in History’ is a very different kind of Medieval princess.

Khutulun was born in 1260, the daughter of Kaidu, the powerful Mongol ruler of Central Asia, and the great-great-granddaughter of legendary Mongol leader Genghis Khan. 

While Kaidu’s cousin, the great Kublai Khan, had built his own empire with cities and a more settled and sedentary way of life, Kaidu’s empire continued in the old ways of horsemanship, weaponry and fighting, and a traditionally nomadic lifestyle. 

Khutulun was raised to be a skilled and powerful warrior who accompanied her father and his soldiers into battle, demonstrating prowess in both stealth and combat. Even when the opposing empires of Kaidu and Kublai went to war against one another, she went to war alongside Kaidu and acquitted herself in a most exemplary manner. 

Khutulun was so impressive in battle that the famous explorer Marco Polo wrote of her military exploits and abililites. Even though he was a ruler over a large empire and had an enormous army at his disposal, he would often seek her advice and support in both political and military matters. In fact, Kaidu wanted to make Khutulun his heir as the ruler of his empire, but because she had fourteen brothers, he was unable to do so. 

Khutulun would never settle for an arranged marriage and resisted her familiy’s attempts to find her a husband. Instead, she issued a challenge: any man who wanted to marry her would have to wrestle her and win.  Any suitor who lost the match would have to give her a horse. 

Clearly, she was a woman who knew her strengths and was willing to back herself in a contest. According to legend,  Khutulun won more than ten thousand horses from the eligible men of Mongolia. She did eventually marry, although it was not because someone was able to successfully win her hand in marriage by beating her in a wrestling match.

Picture: Qutulun, daughter of Qaidu. Public Domain via Gallica Digital Library. https://gallica.bnf.fr/

When Kaidu died, Khutulun took up vigil as the guard of his tomb. Her brothers continued to oppose her at every turn, and she gradually slipped out of public and military life. 

Khutulun died in 1306. The manner of her death remains unknown. 

Her story remained untold for the next four hundred years until a French historian by the name of Francois Petis de La Croix researched and wrote a biography of Genghis Khan. He wrote the story of Turandot based on her life, although he greatly altered the details of the story. It seems Shakespeare wasn’t the only one guilty of deciding he could tell a story more interesting than the truth

Khutulun certainly did things her own way and lived life by the rules that she set. Although she never got to rule the empire as her father had hoped, you’ve got to admire her ability to show all the other soldiers how the fighting should be done, and for finding a  most creative and lucrative way to deal with everyone who wanted to marry her off. 

And admire her is what the Mongolian people still do: their traditional wrestling costume is still worn widely open at the chest to prove that the wrestler is not female.