The Warrior Woman

Recent evidence suggests that women were a much larger presence on the battlefields of feudal Japan. In the story of Tomoe Gozen, we find a cipher for those women.

Geoffrey Bunting
Sep 21, 2019 · 5 min read
A woodblock print by Katsukawa Shunkô II, depicting Tomoe Gozen.
A woodblock print by Katsukawa Shunkô II, depicting Tomoe Gozen.
Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston houses a beautiful woodblock print by Katsukawa Shunkô II depicting an onna-bugeisha in full flow. Rendered in vivid red, green, and blue, it shows Tomoe Gozen almost dancing in the long grass, adorned with blades, and surrounded by ghostly hands and faces as if she is orbited by demons.

Media like Mulan (1998 and 2020) might evoke this kind of image of the warrior woman, but does so while simultaneously cementing the concept of warfare as an exclusively male pursuit. Both modern media and historical texts often attempt to wipe women from the battlefield, claiming figures of female soldiery — be it Mulan, Joan of Arc, or Boudicca — are little more than unique and bizarre outliers at odds with the overwhelmingly male mainstream of war.

This is certainly played out in the history of feudal Japan. However, it was not unusual for women of the samurai class to receive martial training. While their lessons were focussed on harnessing the domestic power they might wield as the wives and daughters of prominent samurai, when battle came to their doorstep it was expected that they would fight alongside men in defence of their home.

Further highlighting the role of women in war, evidence unearthed in the late-2000s suggests that more than a third of combatants at the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru were women. Other excavations around Japan are reporting similar numbers. Something that contradicts the macho image of samurai culture the histories portray, signifying that women may have played a larger and more active role on the battlefield than the texts imply. The presence of Tomoe Gozen in battle may have been exceptional, but these findings suggest it wasn’t as unusual as we’ve been made to think.

Little information is available on Lady Tomoe. While we can often trace the lives of men from the histories, Tomoe Gozen has merged with her own legend to the extent that many suggest she never existed at all. What we do know comes from the Heike Monogatari, a Japanese historical epic that recounts the Genpei War and is comparable to the Iliad in the west. The Tales of Heike place Tomoe at the heart of the conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans. As wife of Minamoto no Yoshinaka, she led bands of Minamoto samurai throughout the campaign. The Tales describe her as a “strong archer” and “a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.” (McCullough, 2005).

In the course of the war, Tomoe is reported to have collected the heads of at least seven opposing samurai — one of which was apparently twisted off by sheer strength alone. At the time, collecting heads was a major part of samurai ritual. Battles were preceded by single combat in which one of the first actions was the presentation of former victims’ heads. At the end of the duel, the victor would remove the loser’s head and add it to their collection — presenting it to their lord after the battle in hope of honour and reward.

Tomoe’s defeat of a master swordsman of the Taira, at the Battle of Shinohara in 1183, and the removal of his head was reported to be a humiliation not just for the man, but also his entire clan. While women may have been more prominent on the battlefield than originally thought, dying to one was still seen as shameful compared to honourable death at the hands of another man.

The Battle of Awazu, the last recorded battle of Tomoe Gozen and Yoshinaka.
The Battle of Awazu, the last recorded battle of Tomoe Gozen and Yoshinaka.
At being told to leave her master’s side, Tomoe Gozen rushed into the oncoming Minamoto army and killed many of them before finally retreating in grief. Image source: All That’s Interesting

The Minamotos prevailed at Shinohara and would go on to win the war. However, as the Minamoto clan consolidated its position and prepared to take power, Yoshinaka broke away from his family in a bid to take Japan for himself. The head of the family, Yoritomo, sent his brothers, Yoshitsune and Noriyori, to confront their rebellious cousin. They met in 1184, at the Battle of Awazu.

This is where the story of Tomoe Gozen comes to an end. She fought alongside her husband as the heavily outnumbered Yoshinaka forces were defeated. Of the three hundred soldiers that Yoshinaka fielded against the six-thousand strong Minamoto army, only five remained when he told Tomoe to retreat. In another signal of how onna-bugeisha were regarded, and despite Tomoe’s reputation as one of the greatest warriors in Japan, Yoshinaka instructed her to leave lest he be shamed by dying beside a woman.

Once the rebellion was put down, Yoritomo ushered in Japan’s first Shogunate in 1192. But the fate of Tomoe remains unknown. Accounts suggest she sought revenge for the death of Yoshinaka, others that she remarried, or pursued a more reclusive life. Regardless, through accounts of her in Heike, we see Tomoe exemplifying the image of the samurai just as much as any man — that of dedication and immense martial prowess.

And as new evidence of women’s roles in samurai culture emerges and their place on the battlefield is re-evaluated, Tomoe Gozen, whether real or not, has become an avatar for the many women who fought as onna-bugeisha; a cipher for their collective experiences that have been rendered anonymous over the centuries by men, but which are now being revealed for the first time through archaeogenetic excavations across Japan.

Cover image source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Geoffrey Bunting

Written by

Designer, writer, and historian. Founder of Geoffrey Bunting Graphic Design (geoffreybunting.co.uk).

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Geoffrey Bunting

Written by

Designer, writer, and historian. Founder of Geoffrey Bunting Graphic Design (geoffreybunting.co.uk).

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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