Tomoe Gozen (circa 1157 – 1247) is perhaps Japan’s most famous female samurai, or onna-bogueisha. A formidable warrior, she was famous for her courage, physical strength, and skill with a variety of weapons. She put those assets to good use on the battlefield, as she fought in the Japanese civil war that led to the creation of that country’s first shogun (military dictator) government – the political system that would govern Japan from the 1180s until 1868.
It was not unusual for women in Japan to receive military training, and for centuries, women of the samurai class were taught swordsmanship, archery, and the use of polearms. It was defensive training, however, for the women to protect themselves and their households in the absence of their menfolk. Tomoe however wanted to test her mettle and training in battle, so she sought an active career as a warrior, and was accepted into the service of a general named Minamoto Yoshinaka.
As described by contemporaries: ” 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 performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”
By 1184, Tomoe had become famous because of her fighting skill and exploits. Her greatest exploit came that year, at the battle of Awazu, when she was part of a small force of 300 samurai that was set upon by a far bigger army of around 6000. She fought with extreme courage and skill against overwhelming odds, but eventually, Tomoe’s force was whittled down from 300 to only Tomoe, her commanding general, Yoshinaka, and five other warriors. With the end drawing near, Yoshinaka ordered her to leave the battlefield, as it would be shameful for him to die alongside a woman. Reluctantly, she obeyed, beheading one more enemy warrior on her way out. Thereafter, she fades from history.