The Only Samurai Woman Warrior

Horse Nerd Amanda Uechi Ronan recently made a trip to the museum to learn about samurai. She saw a saddle made of mother of pearl and discovered a new hero: female samurai Tomoe Gozen.

By 794 AD, horses were an essential part of a samurai’s equipment. Most were descended from Mongolian stock. They were short, stout, shaggy stallions trained to be controlled by the rider’s weight and legs, leaving the warrior free to use weapons.

Keishu_Takeuchi-No_Series-Samurai_on_Horse-00037772-050528-F12Source: Ukiyo-e

Kura or saddles were made from wood held together by interlocking joints and seams of silk. Secrets of their construction were passed down through the generations.

There were two types of saddles used by samurai. The gunjingura was used on the battlefield. It was lightweight, strong, and comfortable. The karakura saddles were used for ceremonies. They were heavy and elaborately decorated.


This saddle and stirrups is dated to 1646. It is decorated with butterflies, branches and leaves executed in the sabi-urusbi laquer style that contained gold flakes and yellow gold laminae.


This 17th century model is made in the wagura style and is a ceremonial saddle. The entire saddle is decorated in perfectly shaped flakes of mother-of-pearl. The saddle was then polished with a vegetable carbon. It is decorated with lions, flowers and leaves of peony made from gold and silver flakes. The edges of the pommel were lacquered in silver powder. A matching quiver and set of arrows were similarly decorated in mother-of-pearl.


Now, you might be thinking, “This is cool, but not quite awesome.” Well, let me introduce you to Ms. Tomoe Gozen.


Source: Kikuchi Yosai

Tomoe Gozen lived from 1157 to 1247 and is one of the only recorded female samurai warriors. Like most samurai, Tomoe’s life and deeds are steeped in legend. Her story is chronicled in the Heike Monogatari or The Tale of the Heike. A.L. Sadler first translated the epic account of the war between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan in the 1920s. It has since been translated into English four more times.

The Tale of the Heike reads, “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.”


Source: Yoshu Chikanobu 1899

The tale states Tomoe rode into battle alongside Minamoto Yoshinaka, another samurai warrior. Some sources say she was his mistress or wife. They fought side by side in the Gempei War (1180 – 1185), though only Tomoe survived. In one battle, she supposedly defended a bridge against dozens of attackers. In another, she killed opposing samurai leader Uchida Iyeyoshi. Uchida tried to drag Tomoe from her horse, but instead she decapitated him and kept his head as a trophy. #likeagirl

After Yoshinaka’s death at the 1184 Battle of Awazu, Tomoe was ordered to return home, but this is where the story gets confusing. The Gempei Seisuki states she was overpowered while trying to leave the battlefield and forced to become a concubine. She and her captor had a son who died in 1213. Afterwards, Tomoe became a nun, living to the age of 91.


Source: Walters Art Museum

Other sources say she went straight to the nunnery. While yet another says she carried Yoshinaka’s head to the sea, killing herself upon arrival so she could continue to serve her master in the afterlife.

No matter how her story ends, I think we can all agree Tomoe Gozen was one hardcore equestrian chic.

Go Riding!

Special thanks to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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