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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. Not only was Tomoe the lover of warlord Minamoto no Yoshinaka, she was also his right-hand woman in battle, a role that earned her a fierce reputation as one of the rare onna musha—a woman who participated in offensive combat.

Since she lived almost 1,000 years ago, we don’t know many certain facts about Tomoe—not even her birth or death dates. 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.

ya-sha-chikanobu-tomoe-gozen
  • Woodblock print by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1899.

Tomoe is credited with many incredible feats, including collecting the heads of seven mounted warriors at the 1181 Battle of Yokotagawara. Three years later, at the Battle of Awazu, Yoshinaka knew they were about to be defeated by the Taira and ordered Tomoe to retreat. But before doing so, Tomoe rode directly into a pack of 30 Taira warriors and beheaded one of their most powerful fighters, famed strongman Onda no Hachiro, thereby securing her honor.

Now that you have a sense of what the great Tomoe Gozen was capable of, read through the statements below and see if you can decipher which come from Japanese historical legend – and which were invented centuries later for storylines in manga.

Related: Our Favorite Historical Fiction Novels 

Tomoe Gozen: Legendary Fact or Fantasy?

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 naginata (pole weapon), but rather a man’s katana (curved sword), and it was said a thousand warriors were no equal to me.

3. Not only was I captain of my lord’s heart, I was also captain of his warriors.

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. It is said that 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. I was once 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.

(See answers after the next image.)

Tomoe_Gozen
  • A drawing of Tomoe Gozen by Japanese painter Kikuchi Yosai (1781-1878).

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 and handled unbroken horses with excellent skill.

2. I never used a woman’s naginata (pole weapon), but rather a man’s katana (curved sword), and it was said a thousand warriors were no equal to me.

Fact Though many artistic representations of Tomoe show her wielding a naginata, historical accounts suggest she preferred the long sword, or a bow and arrow.

3. Not only was I captain of my lord’s heart, I was also captain of his warriors.

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

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 particular 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 At the 1184 Battle of Uchide no Hama, 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. It is said that 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’s life ends when she attacks those who killed Yoshinaka, then walked into the sea to drown.

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. I was once 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. In the version of Tomoe’s fate in which she is forced to become a concubine to another man, she gives birth to strongman Asahina Saburo Yoshihide.

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

Fact In some tales, Tomoe retires from fighting and becomes a nun who spends her time reciting sutras for her lost lover.

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.

Buy The Disfavored Hero at Amazon

The Disfavored Hero

By Jessica Amanda Salmonson

The Disfavored Hero is the first of three books Salmonson wrote about the legendary Tomoe Gozen. The trilogy is completed with The Golden Naginata and Thousand Shrine Warrior.

The Disfavored Hero

By Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Published on 07 Apr 2015

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