Tomoe Gozens life became a legend due to the stories of her ruthless performance in The Genpei War.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way myths grow and solidify. No matter the passing of years, a story survives and evolves as it travels from place to place and is told from generation to generation, and so, a legend is born. The beauty of a legend lies in the fact that it's never told the same way: some versions will emphasize certain events and conceal others. A few of them will exaggerate a particular feat or change the entire atmosphere and emotional intensity of an important event. No historical record can compare with the way in which people creatively retell a story. While we might lose historical accuracy because of this, we gain more interesting and appealing stories. This is what happened to Tomoe Gozen, the fearless female samurai whose life was so admired it became a legend.
There are multiple versions of the life of this legendary warrior from twelfth century Japan, . She lived in a time of great political changes in Japan: the Genpei War (1180-1185), which ended the Heian period and started the first Shogunate under the rule of the samurai. Stories say she belonged to the onna bugeisha, female warriors who were trained since childhood to protect their communities during conflicts. Only a few women fought alongside the samurai in the army, and Tomoe Gozen was one of them.
In the 1180s, it was common for male samurai to use the katana sword and the wakizashi in combat, while women were trained to defend themselves using the naginata: a long sword that allowed them to hurt their enemies from afar. Japanese men weren’t very interested in the naginata, probably because it was associated with women. However, female samurai didn’t mind wreaking havoc from an elegant distance, and Tomoe Gozen managed to stand out among the onna bugeisha due to her astonishing skills in battle using this particular weapon.
Her life became a legend due to the many stories about her ruthless performance in The Genpei War. For instance, it is said that she led an army of 300 samurai against an army of 2,000 (or 6,000, as other accounts state) in the battle of Uchide no Hama, and she was one of the last five survivors. Many accounts focus on her decapitation skills, like the one of the Battle of Yokotagawara, where she beheaded seven warriors and promptly proceeded to gather her prizes: their heads. Today, a collection of severed heads sounds a bit weird, but during that period of history, the accumulation of enemies’ heads was a seen as a sign of success.
The most mysterious part of Tomoe Gozen’s story is her death. All of the accounts are filled with incredibly imaginative stories and speculations, including one where a military enemy kidnapped her and forced her to marry him. Another one says she killed herself by drowning in the sea with the severed head of her master/partner, Kiso no Yoshinaka, a prominent general that commanded her to escape after he and his army were defeated. What happened to Gozen after that event is unknown, but the collective imagination has filled the empty spaces. Stories about her last battle and the last time she swiftly beheaded a prominent opponent among the Taira warriors are still being told today.
She isn’t the only prominent female figure in Japan’s history, but her story has inspired many representations in popular culture. Japanese theater, manga, videos games, and literature have been a few of the chosen mediums to tell her story. At this point it’s hard to decide where to draw the line between fiction and reality in her life, but given the amazing aspects of her known feats, we really can’t complain.
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