Stories from History: Badass Samurai Woman The First

 Image Attribute: By 蔀関月筆 - 東京国立博物館所蔵, Public Domain,
Image Attribute: By 蔀関月筆 – 東京国立博物館所蔵, Public Domain,

There’s a project I’m working on that has required a great deal of research into the history of Japan. I can’t talk too much about it just yet, but keep watching this space for updates.

One thing that is so often forgotten about the Samurai is that there was a large number of women who took part. Known as onna-bugeisha, the female samurai weren’t as rare as are often imagined. Before the widespread emergence of samurai, women were taught how to wield both sword and spear. This ensured that even if much of the population were away, the town would not be left defenseless.

This was at odds with traditional gender norms, but by the Genpai War (1180-1185), women were found on the battlefield. They were never the norm but moved away from an absolute rarity. One of the onna-bugeisha was Tomoe Gozen. The history of this figure is contentious and difficult to confirm the specifics of. Like many histories, a good story and the changing of dominating powers obfuscates the specifics of what actually happened. For example;

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

Other pieces of her story have made their way down to us. She was the concubine or lover of Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka, with some histories even describing her as one of his wives.

Her prowess in battle is also one of the things that we can confirm. In an era when the collecting of heads of people you specifically killed, a practice that the samurai continued for quite some time until supply chain logistics made it more sensible to only send back noses, there were multiple battles where she came away with small piles of heads to demonstrate her success. In 1181 she brought back seven heads of mounted warriors, in 1183 she leads a force of 1,000 to a major military victory, and in 1184, she is one of only five survivors of a battle that placed 300 of her own forces against 6,000 of the enemy’s.

This marked an ignominious end to her military career. She was commanded to quit the battlefield (sources disagree on why, but some suggest her lover didn’t want the dishonor of dying next to a woman, you know, like sweet guys say). Either way, in one last attempt to prove herself, or demonstrate her love, she rode into a group of thirty cavalry members and beheaded the worthiest opponent among them.

After this, she disappears into the shadows of history. Some sources say she was captured, others say she retired to become a nun. Still others suggest that she went on a mission of vengeance, acting almost like an assassin to avenge her deceased lover, stealing back his head so no one would defile it, then walking into the sea with it.

Even in her own day she was heavily mythologized. No sooner had she disappeared from the official annals that blind priests began mythologizing her and her family’s life as a metaphor for the natural transitory nature of things.


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