Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Tomoe Gozen, Onna-Musha (女武者), a "Warrior Worth a Thousand"

Tomoe Gozen, "Lady Tomoe," a Female Samurai (celebrated in annual festival, 22 October)

I recently ran across a reference to "women samurai" or onna-musha (女武者)--a concept that intrigued me, but that I felt probably owed more to anime or Dungeons and Dragons than to reality. Of course I was completely wrong. Yes, there are legends about some of these warrior women but, as Michelle Nowaki notes, female samurai "were not a rarity in feudal Japan."

Tomoe Gozen,
woodblock print by
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (19th Century)
available from the British Library,
reproduced through Creative Commons
After just a few minutes of online searching, I found many sources, but I particularly recommend Nowaki's "Women Warriors of Early Japan," an academic piece (from the University of Hawaii's Hohonu 13 [2015]: 63-68) with an impressive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. 

As a medievalist, I was drawn to Tomoe Gozen, "Lady Gozen," one of the most famous examples of the onna-musha, warriors who engage in offensive warfare (in contrast to onna-bugeisha, whose fighting is defensive).

Stories about Tomoe Gozen come from the Heike Monogatari, a medieval chronicle of the Genpei War, a twelfth-century struggle between two families, the Taira and the Minamoto, for control of Japan. (According to the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, this epic "is to the Japanese what the Iliad is to the Western world—a prolific source of later dramas, ballads, and tales.")

The daughter of  Gon no Kami Nakahara Koneto (the Japan Encyclopedia tells me that "Gon no Kami" is the title of a provincial vice-governor), Tomoe Gozen is also, in various versions of her story, the wife of, concubine of, or servant of General Kiso Yoshinaka of the Minamoto clan. Tomoe's mother is also said to have been the menoto, or wet-nurse, for Yoshinaka. 

Proficient as a rider, as an archer, and with the curved sword known as the katana, Lady Tomoe accompanied Yoshinaka in his battles--the chronicle indicates "she was a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay" and claims "so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors.”

When Yoshinaka was dealt a fatal blow at the battle of Awazu, he was fighting not the enemies of the Minamoto clan but his own cousin. As he lay dying, he ordered Lady Tomoe off the battlefield so she could carry the news of his fate to his family. She paused only long enough to support him with her "last service"--she laid in wait until she could cut off the head of one of Yoshinaka's enemies. 

While she gained recognition "as a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot," what happened after she left the field of battle is not clear. She may have been killed as she attempted to escape, she may have been taken as a concubine, she may have been made into a wife, or she may have escaped and eventually become a nun. 

While many of the stories about Tomoe Gozen are clearly drawn from legend, recent archaeological evidence, though "meager," does show the presence of women warriors on the battlefield in medieval Japan.

Tomoe Gozen,
eighteenth-century drawing by
Shitomi Kangetsu
Nowaki's article is a great place to start, not only for the story of Tomoe Gozen but also for a more comprehensive overview of other female samurai (she also notes that, aside from archaeological evidence, there is also a history of women warriors depicted in artwork.)

For a longer analysis, you may be interested in Steven Turnbull's Samurai Women, 1184-1874--it's VERY short (just 64 pages), and I can't vouch for its documentation, but maybe?