Although Japan and Europe did not have any direct contact with one another during the medieval and early modern periods, they independently developed very similar socio-political systems. Often, these systems are labeled as feudal.
What is feudalism? The great French historian Marc Bloch defined it this way: “A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary…; supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man…; [and] fragmentation of authority - leading inevitably to disorder.”
Tomoe Gozen is a legendary fighter during the Genpei war. Some call her the only true female samurai, though the term “onna musha” or “onna bugeisha” is a more accurate description. Her skill with the sword, naginata, bow and arrow, and intense loyalty have made her the most famous female fighter in Japan. She was said to have been “well respected by men.” So much so that she led soldiers for her daimyo as one of his senior captains. (Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi)
Second to her ability in combat was her beauty. In the Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike, translation by Helen Craig McCullough), Tomoe Gozen is described to be “especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features.” Some legends tell that she was the vicious reincarnation of a river goddess.
In any case, her military exploits are recorded in the Heike Monogatari. During the Genpei War, the powerful Minamoto no Yoshinaka conquered Kyoto, sparking a civil war within his clan. He had many retainers and loyal samurai that distinguished themselves earlier in the war, when he conquered the Heike, one of which was our skilled Onna Bugeisha. He called them to fight for him once again, this time, however, they were outnumbered. During this battle, the Battle of Awazu, Tomoe took heads to present to her master, and fought valiantly. However, the events concluded in a famous scene: Daimyo Minamoto is cornered on the riverbank with only a fear men left. Before a final, desperate confrontation, Tomoe’s master tells her to flee, because dying next to a woman would shame him. She does as told.
The end of her tale is shrouded in some mystery, and this is where the romance abounds: a popular ending says that she gives up the sword and becomes a nun in Echizen. A more Arthurian ending explains that she was defeated by military commander Wada Yoshimori, after which she was inclined to marry him. My favorite ending, the one most befitting of a Japanese warrior denied death in combat, is that she gathered the heads she had collected and drowned herself in the ocean.
Tomoe Gozen shows up in anime, movies, and video games today. For a list of some of her appearances, reference Wikipedia.
Remember my post awhile back on the Gay Samurai of Japan? Well the Onna Bushi women were as close as you can get to “female Samurai”. Take a look:
With the huge success of Shogun 2 came spoilers of all the achievements and unlockables from the blogosphere. One in particular caught my eye, the Onna Bushi, once you’ve gained some serious XP you can unlock a unit of female samurai. I was immediately intrigued as I had thought the Samurai to be to be strictly a boys club. However, Total War games are always steeped in historical fact, and the Onna Bushi are no myth.
After extensive research, I learned the term “female samurai” isn’t technically correct but for the sake of explanation I’m gonna go ahead and keep it. Armor clad samurai women certainly did exist. Japanese women took on the role of defending their homes while their men were away at war. Not a bad idea as Sun Tzu says, “Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack.” Onna Bushi were trained in the same elaborate Samurai tradition and discipline as the men. Often armed with a naginata (the weapon in the above picture) or on occasion a bow these ladies were ready to rock should anyone dare attempt to assault their home or kingdom.
It was a very rare occurrence that these women saw battlefield action, but there is heavy documentation of a certain Onna Bushi said to be “worth a thousand (soldiers)” on the battlefield. Her name was Tomoe Gozen, said to have a gorgeous porcelain face and long black hair. She was a skilled and revered archer said to be fearless and elegant.
I had a feeling our Sugar Gamer ladies who weren’t aware of this little historical tidbit would be elated. It’s a great reminder that a warrior spirit can reside within anyone be it male or female.