Forgotten Figures: Tomoe Gozen

As will prove to be thematic in this series on extremely cool women in history, Tomoe Gozen has never been convincingly proven to have existed. This doesn’t however diminish her impact and influence on world history. It is simply the direct result of history being written by men and about men.

A Bit of Context

Leading up to the Genpei War, Japan was led by an Emperor. Divine right to rule not being an alien concept in Europe, the divine mandate in Japan was closer to the Ancient Egyptian concept where the ruler wasn’t just positioned by the Gods but was, at least in part, God himself. In his book A Brief History of the Samurai, Dr Jonathan Clements explores the social hierarchy of the time, describing it in a way that puts me in mind of a continental Asian caste system. There was a leading warrior class, a class of merchants and artisans, and then the rest of society. Entry into the class was hereditary and there was little or no movement between classes.
Side Note: This system resonated culturally in Japan well into the twentieth century. Hideki Tojo was famously born into the leading warrior class, a fact which supported his rapid ascension to the top of Japanese government. It probably wouldn’t have been possible had he been born into the artisan class.  

The ruling class were also broken up into clans which for simplicity I regard in a similar way as dynastic families. The interactions between these clans came with all of the politics, intrigue, allegiances, and betrayals of the Roman Senate. In particular two large clans fought for supremacy. The Taira and the Minamoto. Minor skirmishes had been fought between these houses but nothing significant enough to bring their much smaller ally clans into the brawl. However, this all changed when the Minamoto who were growing anxious over the Taira’s increasing favour with the emperor, abducted the emperor. It is unclear how they achieved this, but I choose to believe they lured him into a room with something shiny, or maybe a snack and for the next few months he didn’t realise he was being held hostage.
The Taira clearly couldn’t allow this. Whilst the Minamoto held the Emperor, they held the country. A not insignificant amount of violence followed. After the scrap the Minamoto had been defeated, their leader killed and in an act that farted in the face of all narrative sense his three children were allowed to live in exile. Whilst I absolutely don’t condone filicide, anyone with a passing familiarity with any folklore could tell you what happened with these sons, who had a claim to the top spot and a cause for revenge.
The Taira now had imperial favour, their chief was the Emperors chief chancellor and they even married a daughter into the imperial family. More and more provinces came under the governance of the Taira and in exile the Minamoto, apparently oblivious to the arse kicking they had just received, went back on the boil.

Japan was effectively ruled by the Taira who had even put the Emperor under house arrest, apparently for his safety due to a number of failed assassination attempts. Shortly after this the Emperor was replaced. Now I am not saying the individual chosen from the extensive ranks of the imperial family wasn’t totally appointable, having never met him it would be unfair of me to cast doubt on his qualities. What I can say as a statement of fact is that he was two years old and following the general guidelines for succession at the time he should have been eleventh or twelfth in line. It would be very much like Princess Eugenie becoming queen after Queen Elizabeth.
Flying in the face of established succession practices really pissed the former heir apparent off. He was absolutely livid and started talking to people about how he could resolve this situation. He found that Japan hadn’t been particularly happy with Taira rule and were ready to kick off. He then remembered the three Minamoto children, who were children no longer. They were sword wielding, wine drinking, horse riding, manly men.

This was not a unified movement, people weren’t flocking to the Minamoto banner because of a shared desire to see the rightful emperor on the throne. They each had their own agendas and desired outcomes. However, all of them wanted to see the Taira destroyed. Whilst the rest of the Genpei war is incredibly interesting this is the point our narrative resolution needs to increase on Lord Kiso, a Minamoto cousin who changed his name to reflect his upbringing in the Kiso Mountains. More importantly at his side was a tooled up badass called Tomoe Gozen.

Enter Tomoe Gozen

She first appears in fourteenth century Japanese literature as an onna-musha, female warriors in feudal japan. These women were largely trained in defensive martial arts. The idea being that they could defend their home and family when the man is off doing manly things. What set Gozen apart was the fact that she was extensively trained in offensive skills and warfare. Details around her life are shrouded in myth and legend. I suspect some of this may be genetic, specifically the fact she was skilled, accomplished, awesome, and had two X-chromosomes. Its historically well established that internal reproductive organs impair one’s ability in combat. This may also explain the lack of records in relation to Gozen, women generally appear less in recorded histories either because they lived in societies where they are unable to do anything of note or because when they do something of note their actions are marginalised as unimportant and not manly.

Our primary reference is The Tale of Heike, codified at some point around 1330. It is however likely the events it details existed in oral tradition for the two centuries since the Genpei War. Gozen is first mentioned halfway through in the account of the Death of Lord Kiso. Kiso’s other name being Minamoto no Yoshinaka.

I will get onto the actual content shortly however its really important to recognise that Minamoto no Yoshinaka is a prominent member of one of the most important clan at the time, during a period that changed Japan forever. His life and death can be directly linked to the creation of the first Shogunate. The fact Tomoe Gozen is named and described at length in the tale of his death marks her as an incredibly important person. The tale of the death of Kiso would not lose any value if Gozen wasn’t mentioned at all. Her existence in this tale, which was so contrary to literary standards of the time suggest her existence in reality.

Side Note: Everyone in medieval Japanese literature seem to have about a dozen names for different occasions. Added to which Japanese naming traditions have the family or dynasty name first and the unique or forename last. I feel this makes more sense despite being contrary to English naming traditions. What doesn’t make sense is that the authors tend to ignore this tradition at seemingly random places within the same text. In short trying to keep track of the characters made The Tale of Heike one of the hardest reads of my life.  

She is described as an unparalleled master of the bow, the horse, and the sword. She could aim a bow with lethal precision whilst riding a horse at full gallop down a steep hill. This girl did not skip leg day. She was a disciplined and deadly warrior obeying every command issued by her lord and possibly lover Kiso. The tale of Heike goes on to state that she was given command of over two thousand men.

As his successes mounted Lord Kiso drew the focus of the majority of Taira forces. It is reported that he was outnumbered ten to one. There is an amazing quote by Voltaire “God is not on the side of the big battalion’s, but of the best shots”, this absolutely applied here Kiso’s forces were better trained, disciplined and to his credit Lord Kiso was an absolute tactical genius. Most importantly however, he had Tomoe Gozen. It was said that she took the heads of ten mounted warriors in one battle. This is no small achievement, those warriors on horse were likely wealthy Samurai class warriors, having received good weapons and armour, steady mounts, and a childhood full of advanced combat training.

Side Note: She is really putting me in mind of River Tam at this point.

Eventually however the endless stream of Taira took its toll. Battle after battle the victories were less clear. Eventually facing defeat and death Lord Kiso stood with Tomoe Gozen and ask her to leave him. He would suffer great dishonour if he were to die beside a woman. What a dick. Gozen, obedient to her lord as always shrugged but asked first that he be allowed to kill the strongest Taira warrior she could see as an honour to her lord. He agreed and she rode emotionlessly into the stunned Taira ranks and found a horseman, huge with muscle, fine weapons sheathed about him. She rode to him, cut his head off, as this seemed to be her thing, you do you girlfriend. She dropped the head at Lord Kiso’s feet and obeying her lord one last time rode off into the sunset.

Kiso died that day but the Taira had expended all of their forces facing this one lord, they were very swiftly overwhelmed and defeated by the Minamoto and the era of the Shogun had begun.


I am very aware that almost all of this post is about men, and largely how Tomoe Gozen’s fits into the world in relation to these men. Unfortunately, that is the only narrative we are given to work with but that almost makes the context work for her. Women at the time were never portrayed in literature in this way. Not in Europe, the East, or the Far East. There are very few qualifying remarks that you would expect to see in a work of this time “she did very well for a woman”, that kind of thing. Ever her obedience to Lord Kiso is not shown as womanly submission, but the same honour and discipline that any men would be expected to show in her position. She is referred to as a beauty however the physical attractiveness of both genders appear in this work.

Lord Kiso sending her away is likely the action that a Lord at the time, even one as seemingly enlightened as Kiso, would have taken. Enlightenment is one thing, but it takes a lot to get out the stain of a thousand years of cultural misogyny.

I will be honest I really struggled with the materials on this one. A lot of the key players had many, many, many names and they were used interchangeably. A lot of very similar names were also used to refer to different but closely related people as well. I would imagine this would not be a problem if I had a better understanding of modern Japanese culture. However, I am British, and prior to this the only experience I had of this period was from the Asian Saga of books by James Clavell and its awesome television Shogun.

I do not however regret choosing Tomoe Gozen for my first in this series on forgotten women. Her influence, whether or not she really existed has permeated our culture. I wonder how much of her is in characters like River Tam from Firefly, Miho from Sin City, or the thousand female Samurai in Anime.

I have absolutely not done this incredible woman justice. My twenty-first century European cultural lens is too narrow. If you want to know more I highly recommend The Tale of Heike as a starting point.

With special thanks to Samantha Bridge for her creative advice.

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