Women Warriors is a series that puts the spotlight on Japanese women who have left their mark on history. Many formidable Japanese women could be found among the onna bugeisha, female fighters who became a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. One of the most badass onna bugeisha happened to be a 12th century woman called Tomoe Gozen.
The wife of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, Gozen earned a reputation as a legendary warrior during the Genpei War. Gozen’s story took place at a time of great social upheaval, making it an even more inspiring tale.
Standing in the face of overwhelming odds
Gozen grew up during one of the most turbulent times in the history of Japan. The Genpei War ravaged the country from 1180 until 1185 and pitted the Taira clan against the Minamoto clan. The civil war forced other clans to decide between the two houses and Gozen’s family chose the Minamoto.
While sources contradict each other on the nature of Gozen’s life, there are a few key elements that they agree on. After Gozen married Minamoto no Yoshinaka, she served with him in the Genpei War and her fighting skills were undeniable. One of her most famous exploits involved her leading a group of 300 Minamoto samurai against a force of 6000 Taira soldiers and emerged victorious as one of only five survivors.
Her prowess was immortalised in the Tale of Heike, which recounted the Genpei War in vivid detail.
“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 armour, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valour than any of his other warriors.”
Nowhere was her bravery better exemplified than at the Battle of Awazu in 1184. By this time, the Minamoto forces had ousted the Taira clan and Yoshinaka was poised to become shogun. However, his cousin Yoritomo wanted to take control himself, which prompted a battle between them.
Despite Yoshinaka’s forces being outnumbered and overwhelmed, Gozen fought like a demon to protect her lord and lover. It’s claimed that she rode alone into a pack of thirty warriors and beheaded the strongest of them.
After Yoshinaka’s forces came down to the last men, he ordered Gozen to leave the battlefield because he did not wish to die alongside a woman. Despite being reluctant to disobey, Gozen agreed, but not before beheading Uchida Ieoyshi, the man who tried to capture her after the Battle of Awazu.
The fate of the warrior worth a thousand
There are various stories that describe what happened to Gozen in the years after Yoshinaka’s defeat. One story tells of how she was captured by Yoritomo’s henchman, Wada Yoshimori, and forced to be his concubine. Another story depicts her as becoming a Buddhist nun, reciting sutras in Yoshinaka’s name until she passed away at the age of 91. A third tale tells of how Gozen killed Yoshinaka’s murderers, stole back his head and walked out into the sea with it to drown.
Whatever her fate, Gozen has left behind a legacy that continues to be celebrated in the modern day. Her story is honoured during the annual Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) in Kyoto. Taking place on October 22nd, the festival reenacts the movement of the Japanese capital from Kyoto to Tokyo and depicts several important historical figures, including Gozen.
A statue of Gozen can also be found keeping watch at Tokuonji temple, the family mausoleum of Yoshinaka. Neither Gozen or Yoshinaka’s body can be found at the temple, but it is an excellent place for soaking up the history of the local area.
With her fighting skills, bravery and knack for leadership, there’s no doubt that Tomoe Gozen has become synonymous with the image of the onna bugeisha. She’ll continue to inspire generations for years to come.