The Lone Medievalist

Tomoe Gozen

Poster with information about Tomoe Gozen
Artist: Dayanna Knight
Profiler: Kai Fay, Librarian Assistant, Harvard University

Brief Biography

  • Lived during the late Heian/early Kamakura periods (late 12th-early 13th centuries)
  • Said to have been both incredibly beautiful and skilled with weapons and horses
  • Fought alongside Minamoto no Yoshinaka (cousin of the later ruler Minamoto no Yoritomo)
  • Most famous for her role in the Genpei War (1180-1185): Japanese civil war between the Minamoto and Taira clans that led to the fall of the Taira and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo
    • Took part in the Battle of Awazu in 1184 where Yoshinaka was defeated
    • According to the Heike Monogatari, during this battle she defeated Onda no Hachirou Moroshige of Musashi
    • According to the Genpei Seisuiki, the samurai Hatakeyama Shigetada attempted to capture her, but when he came face-to-face with her, he retreated rather than risk the shame of being defeated by a woman
    • Also according to the Genpei Seisuiki, she beheaded Uchida no Saburou Ieyoshi in the same battle
    • When it was clear he would be defeated, Yoshinaka ordered Tomoe to leave the battlefield so that he would not be disgraced by dying alongside a woman
  • According to the Genpei Seisuiki, after her defeat at the Battle of Awazu, Tomoe was taken by Wada no Kotarou Yoshimori and bore his son Asahina no Saburou Yoshihide
  • After Yoshihide’s death in 1213, Tomoe became a nun and lived to the age of 91

Selected Quotations

From Tyler, trans., The Tale of the Heike:

  • “With her lovely white skin and long hair, Tomoe had enchanting looks.
    An archer of rare strength, a powerful warrior,
    and on foot or on horseback a swordsman to face any demon or god,
    she was a fighter to stand alone against a thousand.
    She could ride the wildest horse down the steepest slope.
    In battle, Kiso clad her in the finest armor,
    equipped her with a great sword and a mighty bow,
    and charged her with the attack on the opposing commander.
    She won such repeated glory that none could stand beside her.
    And that is why, when so many had already been cut down in their flight,
    Tomoe remained among the last seven” (463).
  • “The last remnant band of five
    still included Tomoe.
    Lord Kiso said to her, ‘Go, woman, quickly, anywhere, far away. For myself, I shall die in battle or, if wounded, take my own life, and it must not be said that at the end I had a woman with me.’
    She still did not go, but he kept pressing her until at last she replied, ‘All I want is a a worthy opponent, so that you can watch me fight my last fight.’
    And while she waited,
    Onda no Hachiro Moroshige, a man from Musashi famed for his strength, rode up with thirty men. Tomoe charged, caught him in an iron grip, forced his head down to her pommel, kept it pinned there, twisted it around, cut it off, and tossed it away.
    Then she abandoned her arms and armor and fled toward the east” (465-6).


Selected Bibliography


Genpei Seisuiki (also called Genpei Jousuiki). (Japanese full text: partial translation of relevant sections in Tomoe Gozen chapter of Heroic with Grace)

The Tale of the Heike. Translated by Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988.

The Tale of the Heike. Translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Penguin, 2012.


Apeles, Teena. Women Warriors: Adventures from History’s Greatest Female Fighters. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2003. 

Bernard, Chelsea. “Tomoe Gozen: Badass Women in Japanese History.” Tofugu. June 12, 2014. Accessed July 4, 2019.

Brown, Steven T. “From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 58, no. 1 (1998): 183-99. doi:10.2307/2652649.

Joly, Henri L. Legend in Japanese Art: A Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folk-lore Myths, Religious Symbolism, Illustrated in the Arts of Old Japan. 1st Tuttle ed. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1967.

Turnbull, Stephen R. Samurai in 100 Objects. Barmsley, S. Yorkshire: Frontline Books, 2016.

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War. Havertown: Frontline Books, 2008.

Turnbull, Stephen, and Giuseppe Rava. Samurai Women 1184-1877. Osprey: Osprey Publishing, 2012.

Tyler, Royall. “Tomoe: The Woman Warrior.” In Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2015.

Performing Arts

“Tomoe” (15th-century Noh drama, full-text English translation in Heroic with Grace; synopsis; performance: excerpt of part 1)

“Onna shibaraku” (1746 kabuki play; synopsis; performance: part 1, part 2,  part 3,  part 4)

“Tomoe Gozen: Legend of the Female Warrior” (Meiji-za, August 2013; performance website)

“Picaresque Seven” (Sunshine Theatre, Tokyo, January 2018; Tomoe featured character; performance website)


© 2024 The Lone Medievalist

Theme by Anders Norén