Legends Series: Tomoe Gozen

In feudal Japan, some Japanese women were fierce warriors that rivaled their male counterparts. One such samurai legend was Tomoe Gozen.

Female samurai

Female samurai were not as uncommon as you might think. They made up a considerable number of this elite class in Japanese society. There were many different types of female warriors. They include:

  • the onna-bugeisha — those trained to defend the family and property
  • onna-musha — women fighting on the battlefield
  • Kunoichi — female ninjas used in espionage and assassinations
  • Bessihikime — female guards of harems
  • Joshitai — which translates into “Girl’s Army” — a voluntary corps of women
onna musha

An onna-musha wielding a naginata. Photo: Seichi Gishin Den, 1848


Women often had military training in the event of raids or surprise attacks, as well as for ceremonial and symbolic purposes. This tradition continued until the 19th century.

The woman, the myth, the legend…

According to legend, Tomoe Gozen lived in the 12th century. During this time, Japan suffered from a civil war between two rival clans called the Genpei War. It lasted four years.

Many of us may not have heard of her, but Tomoe Gozen was famous in Japan. Yet details about her remain elusive. Historians agree that many of the oral stories passed down by Japanese bards have likely been embellished for dramatic flare. Nonetheless, her legend is intriguing, as Tomoe is said to have struck immense fear in her enemies, including generals themselves. 

Tomoe Gozen might not have been her actual name. “Tomoe” refers to a specific pattern on her clothes and Gozen is just the term for “lady.” She was an onna-musha, a battlefield warrior, and was described as “very lovely”, “a fearless rider,” and “a match for a thousand warriors and fit to meet either god or devil.”

Tales of her beauty and military prowess are chronicled in a medieval epic called The Tale of Heike. She excelled in archery, swordfighting, and horseback riding. Normally, onna-mushas and onna-bugeishas used a naginata, a long pole with a curved single blade at the end of it. But Tomoe preferred the katana, the traditional samurai sword.

Tomoe Gozen illustration.

Tomoe Gozen on horseback. Photo: Tofugu



She grew up in a noble family that served the royal family of the military leader Minamoto no Yoshinaka. She was even his foster sibling in a way, since her mother raised him and was his wet-nurse.

Rochelle Nowaki of the University of Hawaii states that Tomoe was allowed to be so close to Yoshinaka because she was not seen as a threat. They had such a close bond that he allowed her to accompany him on the battlefield and join the conflict. He even made her an officer with a command of over 3,000 soldiers.

She also led 300 other female warriors into battle. Despite her accomplishments, some still saw her gender getting in the way. Yoshinaka himself said that he did not want her near him if he was mortally wounded in battle. “I shall die in battle,” he declared, “or if wounded, take my own life. It must not be said that at the end I had a woman with me.”

Her legendary status arose from her exploits in the Battle of Awazu in 1184. Here, she exercised incredible ferocity by beheading a prominent enemy named Uchida while on horseback. Despite Tomoe’s personal victories, Yoshinaka lost this battle, and Tomoe was one of just a handful left standing.

Other female fighters

Many other female fighters came before and after Tomoe. In the 3rd century AD, an empress named Jingū led armies as an onna-musha and even invaded and conquered the Korean Peninsula. After Tomoe, in the 1200s, an onna-musha named Hangaku Gozen fought in the Kennin Rebellion. Like Tomoe, she was both beautiful and skilled in battle.

The takeaway

Tomoe’s tale does not end in triumph. Some sources say she escaped and became a reclusive Buddhist nun until the age of 90. Others claim that she was captive of a man named Wada Yoshimori, with whom she had a son. A few tales suggests that she became a nun after her kidnapper-turned-husband died. No one knows the true ending to her tale.

Nevertheless, it certainly changes one’s perceptions of women’s lives during such a volatile and restrictive era as feudal Japan. She continues to gain popularity in festivals, plays, films, and books.

Various cultural depictions, past and present, of Tomoe

Various cultural depictions, past and present, of Tomoe Gozen.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.