When we think of the samurai, we invariably think of the brave warriors of Japan’s feudal era. Male warriors. But there was another class of warriors. A class of women. Samurai warriors in their own right.
Perhaps the most famous of these women was Tomoe Gozen. Born around the year 1157 at a time when the samurai ruled Japan. Under the Shogun, the warrior dynasties were Japan’s aristocracy.
Samurai were trained soldiers – highly trained soldiers. They were prepared to die for family and clan.
The wives of the samurai were taught the art of war and could often be found defending the household while their men were away fighting. Others followed their husbands into battle. These women were educated and highly literate. They were instructed not just in the art of war, but in writing, painting, the time-honored tea ceremony, and the managing of estate and servants. They assisted their husband in running the household and in teaching the children. And often, they carried a dagger up their sleeve.
The part these female warriors – known as onna bugeisha – played in society was primarily defensive. Defense of home and family while their husbands were away. They were expected to be able to protect themselves, their homes, and their families in the event of an attack by the enemy.
But Tomoe was different. She played an offensive role as a samurai, not defensive.
Her “master” was Minamoto Yoshinaka – either her husband or the man to which she was an attendant. He sent her into battle as his first captain. Tomoe was strong with a bow and with a sword, fighting with a man’s katana sword and the naginata, a long, curved blade mounted on a pole.
It was also said that she could tame any horse, and was a skilled horsewoman who could ride with ease over any terrain.
She is introduced thusly in The Tale of the Heike: “She was a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors, and fit to meet either god or devil.”
Tomoe was especially skilled at gathering intelligence from enemy forces, and was sent on many dangerous scout missions. And she did not fight from behind. Her place was always on the front line, ready to face the enemy first.
The Heike Monogatari says of Tomoe: “Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a might bow; and she preformed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”
At the Battle of Awazu, the forces of Yoshinaka faced off against those of Minamoto Yoritomo. The battle did not go well for Yoshinaka. His army of three hundred was reduced to just five surviving warriors. Tomoe was among them.
History becomes cloudy on the topic of what happened to Tomoe next. Her master Yoshinaka had been killed, and some say Tomoe eventually died as well. However, others say she was taken captive and later married a rival warrior named Wada Yoshimori. Others say Tomoe gave up a life of fighting, took a vow of chastity, and became a Buddhist nun.
Interestingly, Tomoe’s story may not be a unique one. DNA testing has been completed recently from bones found at archaeological digs at samurai battlegrounds. In one case, at the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru, there appears to be a large female presence among the warriors. Of the 105 bodies tested, 35 were female. Similar results have been found at other sites in Japan. And since none of these other sites were the location of a siege situation – where women would have been protecting their home and family – the conclusion may be reached that women in feudal Japan fought in armies, although their participation was rarely recorded.
Again they galloped through enemy bands- here four or five hundred, there two or three hundred, or a hundred and forty or fifty, or a hundred- until only five of them were left. Even then, Tomoe remained alive.
– from the Heike Monogatari