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Famous Women of Japanese History


This is an archive of the original "Famous Women" section. For the newest updated version, please see the
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Hôjô Masako
Tokuko (Kenrei-Mon-In)
Tomoe Gozen

Hôjô Masako
The 'nun-shôgun'

Masako, one of the most formidable political figures to take a place on the stage of Japan's warrior government, was the daughter of Hôjô Tokimasa and was married to Minamoto Yoritomo. Following the death of her husband (who had become the first Minamoto shôgun in 1192), Masako took up a nun's habit, accepting the tonsure from the priest Gyôyû in 1199. She by no means retired from politics, however, and worked closely with her father to secure the power of the Hôjô in Kamakura. One of her first actions was to form a council of 'elders' (the shukuro) to moderate the power of her own son, the headstrong 2nd shôgun Yoriie. Yoriie was infuriated by the measure, and turned for support among the Hiki clan, the Hôjô's chief political obstacle at the time. The Azuma Kagami relates that Masako overheard Yoriie plotting with the Hiki to kill Hôjô Tokimasa, and that Masako dutifully reported this to her father. Regardless of the truth to this story - or in what way it played out - the result was that Tokimasa moved first, eliminating the Hiki leadership in the fall of 1203. Deprived of his allies, Yoriie was forced into exile in Izu Province and was later murdered. In his place, the eleven-year old Sanetomo was installed, and here we may see the signs of developing cracks between Tokimasa and Masako, for the former had Sanetomo removed from Masako's residence and taken to his own. At this point, Tokimasa became the most powerful man in Kamakura and created the mandokoro office through which he might exercise his authority as regent to Sanetomo. Yet his pinnacle of success was to be short-lived. In 1205, Masako and her brother Yoshitoki ousted Tokimasa, ostensibly due to a supposed plot on his part to kill Sanetomo. Yoshitoki, still smarting from what he felt was an unjustified sentence passed on the Hatakeyama clan (they were eliminated on the suspicion of treasonous designs), publicly declared his support for Sanetomo, and according to the Azumi Kagami Tokimasa felt it wise to step down and retire.
Masako proved as useful to her brother as she had once been to their father, and in 1218 she was dispatched to Kyoto to suggest that one of Retired Emperor Go-Toba's sons be adopted as heir to the childless Sanetomo. Sanetomo was in fact assassinated the following year, and Go-Toba refused to offer a successor and in any case attempted a return to Imperial authority in 1221 that ended in failure.
Yoshitoki died in July 1224 and his passing inspired a conspiracy by the Iga family, who hoped to use the powerful Miura Yoshimura to topple the Hôjô and replace them in Kamakura. Masako learned of the threat and personally rushed to see Yoshimura, extracting a promise that he would stand by the Hôjô, effectively derailing the conspiracy before it had begun. Her brother Yasutoki safely assumed the regency, and the following year she died at the age of 69.
Masako was a remarkable figure and such was her political ability and sway in Kamakura that she was given the nickname of 'ama-shôgun', or the nun-shôgun.

Oda Nobunaga's Sister

Few women in Japanese history have quite the pathos of Oichi, a sister of Oda Nobunaga reknowned for her beauty. She was initially was married to Shibata Katsuie after the latter begged pardon for an abortive rebellion in 1557. Following Nobunaga's conquest of Mino in 1567, Nobunaga made Shibata divorce Oichi so that she might be sent as wife to the young Asai Nagamasa, lord of N. Ômi province. Through Nagamasa she bore one son (Manjumaru) and three daughters. Unfortunately, Nagamasa betrayed his alliance with Nobunaga in 1570 and went to war with him on behalf of the Asakura family. The fighting continued for three years until the Asakura were destroyed and Nagamasa's Odani Castle was surrounded. Nobunaga requested that his sister be returned to him, and this Nagamasa allowed, sending out Oichi and her three daughters. Nagamasa and Manjumaru then perished, leaving Oichi to be shuffled back to Katsuie (though when this happened seems to be a point of debate).
In 1583, following Nobunaga's death, Shibata Katsuie and Toyotomi Hideyoshi went to war over the issue of succession. Katsuie's army was crushed at Shizugatake in the hills of northern Ômi, and the old general himself (who had not been present at the battle) shut himself up in Ichi no tani with the intention of committing suicide. He begged Oichi to take her daughters and flee but to no avail. Oichi did send her daughters into Hideyoshi's care, but stayed herself to die with Katsuie as his castle was engulfed in flames.
One of her daughters, the future 'Yodogimi' would add yet another element of tragedy to this tale, although another would marry Tokugawa Hidetada - the 2nd Tokugawa shôgun - and produce the 3rd shôgun, Iemitsu.

Tokuko (Kenrei-Mon-In)
Wife of the Emperor Takakura

The fate of the Heike clan has often been considered tragic, and with good reason. The sad tale of Tokuko provides a prologue to this story. She was born the daughter of Taira Kiyomori (1118-1181), an ambitious and talented man who managed to lift the Taira (or Heike) to a place of great power in the second half of the 12th Century. To seal his place in politics, he endeavored to marry into the Imperial family, with young Tokuko the instrument of his his designs. To make any such matchmaking feasible, he first arranged for Tokuko to be adopted by Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Once this he was done, he saw to it that Tokuko was married to the then child-emperor Takakura. Some years later, Kiyomori was delighted to learn that the young couple had given birth to a boy - a child destined to be Kiyomori's grandson AND the Emperor of Japan. The birth, incidently, was a difficult one, and it is said that even Go-Shirakawa himself, a priest in addition to his duties as ex-emperor, was called upon to provide spiritual help. Only two years later Takaura was pressured to retire, and the child, named Antoku, was named titular emperor. Tokuko enjoyed a lavish life as the Taira reached the height of thier power. Unfortunatly, the situation was to change rapidly. The Gempei War began and in 1181 both Takakura and Kiyomori died, the latter's passing leaving his faction without strong leadership. In 1183 the forces of Minamoto Yoshinaka forced the Taira - including Tokuko and Antoku - to flee for the western provinces. In 1185 the Taira were cornered and forced to fight to the death at Dan no ura. In the course of the battle, Kiyomori's widow took Antoku and plunged into the ocean with him. Tokoku (known by this point as Kenrei-mon-in) attempted to follow suit, but was fished from the water by Minamoto warriors. In the aftermath of the Minamoto victory she was permitted to retire to the Chorakuji and shave her head as a nun, forgotten in the political upheaval. That same year, fate delt her another blow - an earthquake tumbled her small hut and left her homeless. She ended up going to the Jakko-in, a nunnery in which she was to spend the remaining thirty or so years of her life. The Jakko-in was a particularly lonely place in those times, and Tokuko filled her days with prayers for the spirits of the fallen Taira clan, her late husband, and son. After about a year, she recieved an unexpected vistor: Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who had come to wonder what had become of his adopted daughter. They talked for an afternoon, with Tokuko giving a moving recount of the years leading up to the fall of her clan and in the end both parted in tears, with Tokuko watching Go-Shirakawa's procession until she could see it no more. Tokuko was to die of illness in 1213, her passing providing, perhaps fittingly, the closing words of the Heike Monogatari, which records in its closing section, "After her chanting voice had gradually weakened, a purple cloud trailed in the west, a marvelous fragrance permeated the chamber, and the sound of music was heard in the heavens. Man's time on earth is finite, and thus the lady's life drew to a close at last, midway through the Second Month in the second year of Kenkyû."

Tomoe Gozen
Woman warrior

Tomoe Gozen provides one of the few examples of a true woman warrior in early to early modern Japanese history. While countless other women were at times forced to take up arms (in defense of their castle, for example), Tomoe seems to have been a consumate warrior. She was married to Kiso (Minamoto) Yoshinaka (though the Heike Monogatari describes her as a female attendant), who rose against the Taira and in 1184 took Kyoto after winning the Battle of Kurikawa. With the Taira forced into the Western Provinces, Yoshinaka began insinuating that it was he should carry the mantle of leadership of the Minamoto - a suggestion that prompted an attack by Minamoto Yoritomo. Yoshinaka - and Tomoe - faced the Yoritomo's warriors at Awazu, a desperate fight in which Tomoe took a least one head.
The Heike Monogatari says this of 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 might bow; and she preformed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors."
(Tale of the Heike, McCullough, pg. 291)

The HM goes on to say that Tomoe was one of the last five of the Kiso standing at the tail end of the Battle of Awazu, and that Yoshinaka, knowing that death was near, urged her to flee. Though reluctant, she rushed a Minamoto warrior named Onda no Hachiro Moroshige, cut his head off, and then fled for the eastern provinces.
Some have written that Tomoe in fact died in battle with her husband, while others assert that she survived and became a nun.