Tomoe Gozen - ?-? 12th century
Tomoe Gozen is one of the few recorded female samurai in Japanese history. Japanese women had an important role in Japanese society and life, including that of protecting the home and honour of their husband. This was especially so for women of samurai rank, and many were trained defensively in the use of the naginata as well as the Japanese dagger. However few ever fought on the battlefield, and if they did it was in the last-ditch defence of their home. Tomoe Gozen, however, defied convention.
We are told that she was a fully fledged warrior, who fought with amazing skill with weapons normally reserved for men. She was mistress of the bow as well as the sword. Read this extract from the Heike Monogatari, or Tale of the Heike.
"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 preformed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors."
The Tale of the Heike describes her as an attendent of Minamoto Yoshinaka, though other sources indicate that she was actually his wife. Whatever her true status, she was as the extract indicates one of his most capable and trusted warriors. At the Battle of Awazu (1184), when Yoshinaka's forces were defeated by Minamoto Yoritomo despite fierce resistance, Gozen was one of the few warriors left standing near the end. Some tales said that she was ordered to flee by
Yoshinaka and doing so took the head of an enemy samurai, Onda no Hachiro Moroshige, others that she took Yoshinaka's head to prevent it from being seized by Yoritomo's men. Yet more accounts say that she stayed until the very end and was killed alongside her lord.
Though we can not be sure how accurate this source or other sources are, the tale of Tomoe Gozen persists. Whoever she was, she must have been a truely remarkable person.
Tale of the Heike, translated by McCullough