Butt-Kicking Princesses in History – Tomoe Gozen

Okay, fine. She’s not a princess. But she was a samurai – a samurai! –  which is so friggin’ cool I can hardly stand it, so I had to include her. And as a result, I’ve been running around my house all day, slaying my enemies with my imaginary sword, and beheading possibly-carnivorous bunnies in the landscape of my imagination.

(And my kids accuse me of not having a real job. THE NERVE!)

(Is being a writer not a real job? Oh god. It’s not, is it.)

My ten year old just asked me what I was doing. So I told her. “Writing about a girl samurai,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “So you’re writing about me, then? Good.”

“Are you a samurai?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “not now. You haven’t bought me a sword. But I am in my dreams.”

And now I live with the knowledge that my willowy girl lives a double life as a sword-handling samurai princess in her dreams, and my life is awesome forever.

(My kids are cooler than any book I will ever write. This is another bit of knowledge that I must live with. It’s not so bad, as bits of knowledge go.)

Tomoe Gozen was the wife (one of several) to the general Minamoto no Yoshinaka. The samurai business was, at the time (12th century, Japan) a fairly dude-centered industry, but Tomoe was known for her superior fighting skills, her horsemanship and her valor. She was an expert in archery, military tactics, and competitive beheading.

Okay, fine, I made up the competitive bit …. but she was a good beheader, which, really, is an under-appreciated skill. I couldn’t do it. Could you?

The epic poem, The Tale of the Heike, which describes the massive struggle for control over Japan by the Taira and Minamoto clans at the end of the Genpei War, tells us this about our Tomoe:

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.

According to the poem, Minamoto no Yoshinaka had defeated the Heike and driven them far to the West. He also took the holy city of Kyoto, and tried to declare himself the leader of the clan. He had, after all, done all the work. Or, he and his warriors. Which is to say, he and his wife – who he apparently sent into the thick of battle and only joined her when she made sure it was safe.


Anyway, his cousins did not agree, and a battle for control ensued. Specifically: The Battle of Awazu in 1184.

Both Tomoe and Yoshinaka fought valiantly (Tomoe beheading, as usual), but they were vastly outnumbered. With his horse stuck and lamed in a half-frozen field. Yoshinaka told Tomoe to flee, which sounds sweet, until he added that it would be shameful for him to die in the company of a woman. Which, if you don’t mind me saying, is a bit rich. And I hope she socked him one, right in the eye. Because he would have deserved it.

So, righteously ticked off, Tomoe stormed away. And then she got bloody – first beheading Honda no Moroshige of Musashi,  and then running her sword through the middle of Uchida Ieyoshi. She then evaded capture and vanished from history.

Some accounts say that she gave up the sword and became a nun. Others say that she got married again and was domesticated. Baloney, I say. There’s no grave and no further mention of her in the historical record (and by “historical record”, I mean, of course, this cool poem and not much else. There is a grave for her (first?) husband, so we know for sure that he exists. But she is a mystery. I like mysteries.).

Which means that she could have gone anywhere. An outlaw in the forest. A secret friend to travelers. A sword-wielding foe of those who abuse their power. A beheader of bad guys. I don’t know, but I refuse to believe the official account. Any woman that gnarly isn’t going to disappear just because some man tells her to.

She will enlarge. She will become a contradiction, a poem, a legend, a dream. She will contain multitudes. She will inhabit stories just because. And she will not die.

My daughter, apparently, is a sword-wielding samurai in her dreams. Perhaps so am I. Perhaps so are you. Perhaps all of us become Tomoe Gozen the moment our eyes droop and our heads drop back. Perhaps we hear thundering beats of her horse’s gallop and our eyes begin to blaze and our sword arms itch, and all at once, someone yanks on the back of our collars and hauls us into battle.


I swear, I could look at this all day

And one more thing to put in the file titled My Book Actually Exists! are these two little pages from the 2011 catalog at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Which means, currently, at the Barnhill House: more joyful squeals; more dancing about the room; more wild abandon.