Tomoe Gozen was a rare female warrior, a concubine of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, and is believed to have survived the Genpei War (1180-1185). (Though there is some scholars that believes she is a purely fictional character. [Jessa: This is probably because all the contemporary information we have about her comes from The Tale of the Heike, an epic history of the Genpei War written roughly 100 years after the conflict that is, as the anecdotes below indicate, a bit exaggerated. Exactly how much exaggeration is something academics spend a long time yelling at each other about.])
Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also 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 handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.
- — The Tale of the Heike
There is little information about Gozen prior to her position as retainer to Minamoto no Yoshinaka, the head of the Minamoto clan. (Some speculate that beyond being one of his war generals, Gozen was also his mistress or concubine). Since many of you are most likely like me and know very little about twelfth-century Japanese history I will do my best to provide you with a brief overview:
Basically the Minamoto and the Taira, both warrior clans with hereditary links to the Imperial family, were in a massively bloody feud mostly fueled by the desire to control the Imperial court.
Gozen was Yoshinaka’s premier military commander and always rode into battle at the head of the army. She was a skilled horsewoman and was as deadly with a bow as she was with a sword. She was also a brilliant (although perhaps underhanded) strategist. In one battle against the Taira her army marched up to them carrying the red flags of the Taira clan, then as they reached the front lines switched to white and slaughtered hundreds. Another anecdote has Gozen and Yoshinaka challenging Taira clan members to duels, and while Taira clan members were busy watching the fights, Minamoto armies flanked them from behind and slaughtered them.
Tomoe Gozen was just as ruthless against the advances of men. One story has a samurai by the name of Uchida Iyeyoshi attempting to claim her as his wife. As he tried to pull her from her horse he ripped her sleeve. Gozen apparently really loved that shirt because she responded by decapitating Uchida and kicking his headless corpse into an acid-filled ditch.
With Gozen’s aid, Yoshinaka easily overran the Taira clan and marched into Kyoto in 1184 where Yoshinaka was bestowed with the title of Asahi Shogun. Unfortunately, as in most cases, Yoshinaka was drunk with power and quickly alienated a lot of people, including a majority of his own clan who promptly decided to kill him. Unable to beat the Minamoto army sent against him, Yoshinaka remained on the battlefield to die with honor, but he begged Gozen to flee unable to bear the thought of his best general following him into death. Of course, Gozen refused, but when Yoshinaka begged her to protect her honor, she reluctantly agreed to flee to safety.*
Unfortunately, a pretty notoriously fierce samurai known as Onada Moroshige stood in her way. Onada was a intimidating fighter from the Musashi province and was known for his unrivaled strength and swordsmanship. Tomoe must have missed that memo because she charged straight towards him at a full gallop, unseated him from his horse, and then pinning him against her thigh decapitated him (some say with a dagger, some say with her bare hands). She held the head up for Yoshinaka to see that she was unharmed and victoriously rode off. Not much else is known about her beyond her military exploits.
–Megan (with a little Japanese history proofing from Jessa)
*[Note from Jessa: I’ve never read the Tale of the Heike, but I think it’s fascinating that it appears that–despite all of Gonzen’s military status and success–the threat to her (feminine) “honor” from the approaching army was more important than her duty as a warrior to sacrifice herself in honorable defeat. The Wikipedia version tells me that Yoshinaka sent her away because he was ashamed to die with a woman, which may be even more interesting (but take that with a Wikipedia-sized grain of salt). Still. Term paper, anyone?]
For more information:
McCullough, Helen, trans. The Tale of the Heike. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Thompson, Ben. Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. New York: William Morrow, 2009.
Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Women 1184-1877 (Warrior). Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.