Fact or Fantasy: All About Female Samurai Warrior Tomoe Gozen

    Can you tell the difference between historical Japanese legend and creative fantasy fiction?

    A 12th-century warrior from feudal Japan, Tomoe Gozen has become truly legendary for her heroic feats in the Genpei War. The lover of warlord Minamoto no Yoshinaka, Tomoe was also his right-hand woman in battle, and she earned a fierce reputation.

    Since she lived long ago, we don’t know many certain facts about Tomoe. But colorful stories have been passed down, weaving a rich legend that has been used to create characters in popular manga, like Usagi Yojimbo and Samurai Deeper Kyo – as well as in the fantasy series The Tomoe Gozen Saga by Jessica Salmonson, in which Tomoe is the powerful heroine.

    Read through the statements below and see if you can decipher which are Japanese historical legend – and which are inventive tales used in fiction.


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    Legendary Fact or Fantasy?

    My name is Tomoe Gozen, and I am an onna bugeisha, or female samurai.

    1. I was feared for my skill with the sword and archery, and could handle untamed horses as one would a petulant child.

    2. I never used a woman’s ningata, but rather a man’s katana [both Japanese weapons], and it was said a thousand warriors were no equal to me.

    3. In battle, I was first captain of war and the captain of my lord’s heart.

    4. Once, there was a rebellion of peasant farmers, almost too many to count, and I alone, with a small group, held them off.

    5. I led my warriors against a force 20 times our size. People speak with awe of the Spartans, but they should really speak of me.

    6. They said I fought like the undead, and no one could kill me in a fair fight.

    7. When my lord met his end, I carried his bloodied head to the ocean and drowned myself so that I could serve him in the afterlife.

    8. But even the afterlife could not hold me — for I fought and slew all the demons of Hell and was granted a second life.

    9. Soon I was attacked and captured by a swordless samurai, whose child I later bore.

    10. My daughter’s name was also Tomoe, and she, too, became a samurai. She was known for being quick as a cat and became almost as famous as me.

    11. I went on to become a Buddhist nun and lived to be 91.

    12. There is a shrine built where my lord died in battle that my ghost is said to haunt — and it is said that one day, I shall rise again.


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    Answer Key 

    1. I was feared for my skill with the sword and archery, and could handle untamed horses as one would a petulant child.

    Fact Tomoe was known to be a master of arms.

    2. I never used a woman’s ningata, but rather a man’s katana [both Japanese weapons], and it was said a thousand warriors were no equal to me.

    Fact Tomoe fought with a man’s katana (a sword) rather than a woman’s ningata (a long pole with a curved metal blade at the end).

    3. In battle, I was first captain of war and then captain of my lord’s heart.

    Fact Despite being looked down on for being a female warrior, Tomoe was nevertheless named first captain of Lord Minamoto Yoshinaka’s army – as well as his lover.

    4. Once, there was a rebellion of peasant farmers, almost too many to count, and I alone, with a small group, held them off.

    Fantasy While it seems probable that Tomoe could easily hold off a band of peasant farmers, this story has only appeared in Salmonson’s novel – not in legend.

    5. I led my warriors against a force 20 times our size. People speak with awe of the Spartans, but they should really speak of me.

    Fact Tomoe was said to have fought an army of over 6,000 with only 300 samurai. She was one of only five people to survive.

    6. They said I fought like the undead, and no one could kill me in a fair fight.

    Fantasy Although it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Tomoe couldn’t be killed, this is actually a reference to the anime Samurai Deeper, in which Tomoe is resurrected as a samurai zombie.

    7. When my lord met his end, I carried his bloodied head to the ocean and drowned myself so that I could serve him in the afterlife.

    Fact In one version of the story, Tomoe takes her lord’s head and drowns, while in another, she is told by her dying lord to leave the battle, which she does, but not before attacking 30 samurai and killing the strongest one.

    8. But even the afterlife could not hold me — for I fought and slew all the demons of Hell and was granted a second life.

    Fantasy Surprising as it may seem, there is no mention in the legends that Tomoe ever came back from the dead, although she probably had many close calls. But in Salmonson’s The Disfavored Hero, Tomoe does indeed come back from the dead and is put under the power of an evil wizard.

    9. Soon I was attacked and captured by a swordless samurai, whose child I later bore.

    Fact In some tales, the great warrior is unexpectedly subdued by a samurai who uses a club made from a pine tree’s trunk.

    10. My daughter’s name was also Tomoe, and she, too, became a samurai. She was known for being quick as a cat and became almost as famous as me.

    Fantasy This statement references another anime based titled Tomoe Ame, in which a cat-human named Tomoe Ame is a samurai.

    11. I went on to become a Buddhist nun and lived to be 91.

    Fact In some tales, Tomoe does not drown but instead retires from fighting and becomes a nun.

    12. There is a shrine built where my lord died in battle that my ghost is said to haunt — and it is said that one day, I shall rise again.

    Fantasy The story of Tomoe Gozen has been reenacted in many Japanese plays. In one production, Tomoe, the female samurai is a ghost haunting the shrine of her dead lord.

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