In the feudal era, samurai ruled Japan. Under the Shogun, these warrior dynasties formed the country’s aristocracy. But this military nobility did more than enjoy the cush of privelege. Samurai were highly trained soldiers prepared to die defending their clan and their family – and so were their wives.
This heady time for Japanese women allowed them education, strength and independence that would decline in following centuries. Stories of castellan wives ruling in their husband’s absence crop up all throughout Japanese medieval history. Samurai wives learned the art of war and often defended their household while their husbands were away fighting – some even followed their husbands into battle. Legends like Lady Tomoe stand out not because they were women, but because they were elite soldiers.
Lady Gozen was born into a Japan where samurai life required constant dedication. Women betrothed to samurai were trained from childhood to perform their housewife roles. They were highly literate and educated, instructed in the art of writing, painting, tea-ceremony, and managing an estate and servants. They assisted their husband and taught their children. Wives were often a quiet but strong presence in the living quarters and palaces where political policies were privately worked out.
They often carried a dagger up their long sleeve and could throw with deadly aim.
Wives of samurai were also trained in the art of defense. While their husbands fought with a katana sword and the shorter wakizashi, they learned to wield the naginata, a long, curved sword on a pole that they could use to create greater distance between themselves and their enemy while wielding swift force. They often carried a dagger up their long sleeve and could throw with deadly aim. With their husbands so often in battle, samurai wives oversaw the management of the family estate, which (unfortunately) often included cleaning decapitated heads of prominent fallen enemies to present to triumphant commanders.
Lady Gozen was more than a defending wife. She was onna bugeisha, a female consummate warrior. She was either the wife or an attendant of her master Minamoto Yoshinaka, who sent her into battle as his first captain. She was a strong archer and swordsman (she fought with a man’s katana), and could skillfully handle unbroken horses down steep descents. She was known as one warrior worth a thousand, and was considered beautiful with her characteristic creamy skin, long hair and what has been described as “charming features.”
She was known as one warrior worth a thousand, and was considered beautiful with her characteristic creamy skin, long hair and what has been described as “charming features.”
The Tale of the Heike, an epic chronicle of the Genpei Wars, tells us what we know about Tomoe. In the Battle of Awazu, she fought with samurai armor, a sword and a bow. She fought better than any of Yoshinaka’s warriors. She flung herself on one of the strongest enemy warriors and cut off his head, and was of the last five of Yoshinaka’s soldiers standing. Knowing he was about to die, Yoshinaka urged Tomoe to flee – either to save herself or because he would be ashamed to die with a woman, whichever version you go with.
Some accounts say she fled to the hills, some say into the sea with Yoshinaka’s head. Some say she eventually died in the battle, and others claim that she became a Buddhist nun. Some say she was defeated by and married enemy military commander Wada Yoshiumori then became a nun. Though most of her life is unknown, her persona heavily influenced Japan. Her story has been mythologized in kabuki Japanese theater, a popular fantasy novel and a video game, which are all admittedly cool. What’s not to like about a graceful woman who holds her own?
The mystery that enshrouds Tomoe is part of her intrigue. For my part, I’m left wondering what she thought about in the silent dawn as she braided her hair for battle. Who was her mother? Who were her friends? How did she find courage to face samurai twice her size? What did she feel when her husband, who was proud to fight with her as a soldier, was embarrassed to die with her as a woman? (I go with that version.)
She fought like a man, but made it known she was a woman.
Recent DNA testing from archaeological digs of samurai battlegrounds proves a staggering female presence. Of 105 bodies tested on one battle mound, 35 of them were female. Tomoe could have been any of those. Whatever her fate, she represents a female resilience and courage that history often skips over. She fought like a man, but made it known she was a woman. She kept her selfhood while exhibiting strength. That’s a balance worthy of any Darling woman’s crusade.
FOLLOWING HER LEGACY: How can you show a greater strength in life that will improve yourself and others?
For more information on Tomoe, read Royall Tyler’s translation of The Tale of the Heike.
Image via Library of Congress