Loyal Wives & Tragic Heroines
When one thinks of ancient Samurai warriors, fierce armor plated men with beards and katana swords are usually the first things that come to mind. The roles of women in feudal Japan, nearly a thousand years ago, were more along the lines of loyal wives who would dutifully serve their husbands’ needs and tragic heroines who would kill themselves in order to honor their dead husbands. Of course there were crafty feminine seductresses who could do things to distract and persuade enemies of their clans. There were also women who were given away to warriors as sex slaves.
As a result of the clearly defined male and female roles, it was very unusual to see onnamusha (female warriors) either training or on the battlefield. But there were exceptions; women who possessed extreme strength and will to overcome the iron fisted domination of men. By way of necessity, circumstances and sheer determination they picked up hand-to-hand combat, sword and archery skills. The best of them were skilled enough to go head-to-head with their male Samurai counterparts and take their heads. And heads they did take.
Of the limited number of Japanese women who went on to become full fledged Samurai warriors and saw combat, there was one who stood out from the pack and would go on to become a celebrated historical figure: Tomoe Gozen. For all of her grace and beauty, this was a woman not to be messed with.
The natural beauty of traditional Japanese women has been discussed, documented and admired the world over. From the way historical documents describe her, Tomoe Gozen possessed this natural beauty more than most.
Tomoe was blessed with flawless fair skin, silky jet-black hair and the most stunning facial features, including delicate lips and perfect cheekbones. Many men desired her and in her late teens, she became the concubine of General Kiso Yoshinaka of the Minamoto Samurai clan. Reputed as an undaunted woman with a passionate drive to learn the Samurai way, she was now in a situation where she could pick up all of the skills she needed to become a fearless warrior. She learned to break wild horses and is said to have done so with the skill level of the best male horse experts. Her favorite weapon was the naginata, a wooden pole with a metal blade on the end. Her unique skill with it is said to have inspired specific naginata traditions that incorporated her unique style.
She was also well practiced with the sword and bow, and kept them on her person as part of an impressive arsenal. Not one to sit around in times of battle, when Yoshinaka led his troops into the Genpei War, a 5 year conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans, she followed him into battle. With ferocity unheard of by a woman, she took heads by the hundreds and made widows of many women. She fought bravely until her husband’s clan was ultimately outnumbered and defeated. When he knew he was about to face death, he asked Tomoe to flee because of the shame he would feel dying in front of her.
She agreed, but upon her husband’s death there would be more bloodshed at the hands of this fearless femme warrior.
After complying with Yoshinaka’s wishes and fleeing, Hatakeyama Shigetada of the Taira clan captured Tomoe.
Historically considered a fierce competitor and a brave and honorable soldier, ultimately he will best be remembered as the guy who failed to contain Tomoe. In an epic showdown she escaped Shigetada’s clutches with such ferocity that the sleeves of her shirt ripped off in his hands. Upon her exit from his compound, she beheaded warrior Morishige of Musashi with a stolen sword. She ran off into the night and it was certain from that point on that her legend would endure forever.
There has been much speculation as to the fate of Tomoe after the wars. As one legend tells it, when all was said and done, and many heads had been severed and hearts pierced, Tomoe renounced violence and retired to the monastery of Tomomatsu in Echizen. Here she became a Buddhist monk and lived out the rest of her life in peace. Another more wildly speculative legend states that Tomoe was kidnapped by warrior Wada Yoshimori and had a son, Asahina. Asahina is known as one of the fiercest warriors in Japanese history.
Whatever happened to her, she is beloved by the Japanese people and her story has been retold countless times by fans and historians alike.
Tomoe’s life and story are highly unique in that they represent one of the few examples of a dominant female samurai in feudal Japan. There are others, like Hojo Masako a.k.a. the “Nun Shogun”, who at one point usurped the power of the Minamoto clan with the help of her father and son. It’s women like these that paved the way for the highly successful women of Japan today. From heads of industry to heads of state, Japanese women have risen to power and made a name for themselves. Not surprisingly, they also excel in various martial arts and have successfully represented their country in Judo at the Olympic Games.
Tomoe Gozen was a Samurai warrior who was as beautiful as she was deadly. She shattered the myth that a Japanese woman had to be a tragic heroine, or fulfill some other stereotypical female role. Her contributions to Japanese society and culture are truly immeasurable.