There are a good number of female figures in Japanese history that are hard to come about. From acts of bravery on the battlefield, to power over the mass in political struggles, these female figures do exist in old historical books, which takes a bit of digging to come about. In today’s post, I will focus on one who is known by the name of Hangaku Gozen1.
Taking her name from the pages of historical books2, Hangaku Gozen is said to exemplify the image of a warrior, for she survived harsh conditions on the battlefield. She is hailed for her discipline and bravery, along with her skills with the bow and arrow. Often compared to the legendary Tomoe Gozen3, the tale of Hangaku Gozen is illustrated in older books, paintings, and in plays. Nowadays, there are jidai geki (historical drama) and cosplay (aka costume play, where one dresses up as a particular character) of Hangaku Gozen in public events especially in her hometown. Yet, even in modern society of Japan today many have not heard her name nor story. Through this post, I will share Hangaku Gozen’s tale.
The setting for Hangaku Gozen’s story begins in the later years of the Heian period. This period, rich in agriculture, is where the Imperial family, along with those of religious and aristocratic ties, were in the upper tiers in society. Hangaku was born in a prestigious buke (warrior family), bearing the surname Jō4. Having blood ties with the powerful Taira clan, famous for their political and military power, the Jō family was considerably resourceful and influential within the lands in Echigo no Kuni (present day Niigata). While the warrior class was not high in social status at this time as religious and aristocratic groups, they were still feared for their military strength, which is what the Jō family possessed.
Hangaku’s birth year is 1172. She is the daughter to the head of the Jō family, Jō Sukekuni5. Her mother, while name is unknown, is the granddaughter of Kiyohara no Takehira6, who was of a noble family. Hangaku grew up in Sangyōji Castle7, which stood in Okuyama Manor8 (present day Nakajo Town), located in Echigo no Kuni. She is the youngest of 3 children, her siblings being Sukenaga9 (oldest) and Nagamochi10 (middle). She also has a nephew (Sukenaga’s son) named Sukemori11 she grew up with.
Since the Jō family were well off financially, Hangaku and her siblings received good education, as well as versed in the ways of warfare. Hangaku showed she was exceptionally gifted in both, which her father Sukekuni soon recognized. He ensured that she received the same learning experience akin to her brothers and nephew. Due to her intelligence and talents, it is said that Hangaku was even allowed to manage castle affairs while her father and brothers were away.
Hangaku’s skills in bujutsu (warrior arts) are said to be impressive. While there are no records that go into details regarding her bujutsu studies, one can imagine that, like any warrior during these times in Japan, she was versed in the commonly used weapons and tactics, such as the tachi (sword), yari (spear), bajutsu (horsemanship), jintori (commanding troops) and so forth. In any case, Hangaku was competent enough to take the role as her nephew Sukemori’s guardian, as well as take part in administrative duties at Tossaka Castle12, where he resides. Her diligence and sense of responsibility at such a young age earned her the title “Gozen”, which means “Lady”. Thus the reason she is most recognized as Hangaku Gozen, or “Lady Hangaku”.
TAIRA VS MINAMOTO
Her upbringing coincided with many of the changes that took place within the Jō family. In her mid teens, the Jō family took part in the ongoing struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan that erupted into the Genpei war (1180-1185). Her oldest brother, Sukenaga, participated in the battles as head of the family, while Hangaku and Nagamochi remained at home. Not too long after the war began, Sukenaga passed away suddenly due to illness. Nagamochi replaced his deceased brother and took up arms in the name of Taira. There is no mention of Hangaku entering the battlefield, so it is more than likely that she remained at home to take care of matters there. Her maturity and understanding how to manage castles at a young age prepared her for this.
Nagamochi lead an army to attack Kiso Yoshinaka13 in Yokotagawara, Shinano (present day Nagasaki Prefecture). However, he faced a great defeat and, although fleeing east to Aizu Bange Town (located in present day Fukushima Prefecture) with a small number of soldiers, Nagamochi would later be outbested by his pursuers, and finally captured. Not too long after, the Taira clan faced defeat at the hands of the Minamoto clan which led to their demise. In late 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo took the seat as shogun, and established the Bakufu, thus beginning the age of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Losing abit of a foothold in terms of power, Hangaku and her family had to work harder as the ruling force was not in their favor. They were opposed by Wada Munezane14, who was appointed by the new shogun to take over the areas of Okuyama Manor in Echigo. Around this time, Hangaku, in her 20s, had grown into a superb warrior and commander. She protected her homeland leading forces against the troops of Munezane, which not only prolonged the lifeline of the Jō family, but contributed to their reputation and military might.
Around the same time, Jō Nagamochi, who was still held as a prisoner in the hands of his enemies, was pardoned for his previous actions by Minamoto Yoritomo. In exchange, Nagamochi had to pledge his loyalty. He agreed and became a retainer for the Minamoto clan under the employment of Kajiwara Kagetoki15. His motives were to most likely keep his family safe, for this ceased Wada Munezane’s attacks. Hangaku, along with her nephew Sukemori spent many days in peace as they maintained their household.
While Nagamochi fought in the name of the Minamoto and entered the battlefield against Ōshu Fujiwara (known as the Battle in Ōshu), he earned merits and trust amongst his new peers. However, he kept his original displeasure for the Minamoto and the Bakufu, and schemed some way to overthrow both. At the start of 1201, after certain events, (including the passing of Yoritomo, with his younger brother Yoriie becoming the new shogun) Nagamochi made his move to try and overthrow the current government. Raising an army of his own, he would storm Heian Kyo (present day Kyoto) to challenge the Bakufu. He even tried to get support from the Emperor, requesting an imperial order in hopes to receive aid to officially rid the Minamoto from power.
Unfortunately, Nagamochi was unable to acquire the imperial order. His plans were shortly thwarted as the Bakufu military charged upon Nagamochi and his army, and were eliminated. This bold and unexpected move did not bode well for the Jō family, as Minamoto Yoriie declared an assault on the Jō family’s home. Sazaki Moritsuna16, one of shogun Yoriie’s commanders, lead a big army in the name of the Bakufu to seize control of Tossaka Castle and eliminate the remaining members of the Jō family.
While Nagamochi served the new government, most likely he was keeping in contact with Hangaku and the others. Although it is not certain whether they knew about his plans to try and overthrow the government, they did get word of his defeat and the impending assault by the government’s army. Having only a few months before the upcoming threat, Hangaku and Sukemori made preparations, each commanding their own force to deal with the threat. When the time came, they made their final stand at the Tossaka Castle, defending their home against the overwhelming military force of the Bakufu.
Sukemori tried to face the opposition, but in the long run pulled out of the fight and fled. With their chances of victory looking grim, Hangaku, as a last resort, climbed up a watchtower. With her bow in hand, she rained down arrows upon the opposing troops, taking out many of them with precise shots. It is here where Hangaku is truly remembered by her valiant actions, as she displayed her prowess with the bow and arrow. Unfortunately, a soldier by the name of Fujisawa no Shiro Kiyochika17 got the upper hand as he made his way up on a mountain behind Tossaka castle, in the blindsight of the watchtower. From there, Kiyochika shot an arrow that pierced both of Hangaku’s legs, which prevented her from standing. Shortly, she was subdued and captured by the remaining troops of Sazaki Moritsuna’s army. Hangaku was kept in captivity, and her wounds attended to before she was taken to Kamakura (present day Kamakura city, Kanagawa Prefecture), home of shogun Yoriie.
Once in Kamakura, Hangaku was brought before the presence of the shogun Yoriie. Yoriie and his officials were briefed ahead of time of Hangaku and her feats in battle. On top of that, her being a female commander greatly peaked their interest, for it was not common for women to step onto the battlefield, let alone lead her own troops. It is said as she stood before the shogun, Hangaku showed no fear and faced her captors with conviction and bravery. This shocked and amazed Yoriie, and everyone else present. She was then kept further in captivity, as her faith had yet to be decided.
The next day, Asari Yoichi Yoshitō18, a commander from Kai no Kuni (present day Yamanashi Prefecture) requested an audience with the shogun. Granted, Yoshitō stood before Yoriie and asked permission to take Hangaku as his wife. When asked why, Yoshitō took a liking to her strong qualities, and believed he could start a family that would lead to birthing a son of qualities suitable to serve the shogun. Pleased with the explanation, Yoriie granted him this request, and shortly afterwards Yoshitō took Hangaku as his wife, and they both returned back to his hometown Toyotomi Village, located in Kai no Kuni.
From here on It is said that Hangaku’s days were more peaceful. For example, she accompanied her husband Yoshitō on trips to Akita Prefecture. There, Yoshitō was chief owner of Hinai District. Hangaku also had a child with Yoshitō, who’s name was Tomoyoshi19. With that, here ends her story.
TIDBITS AND MISCELLANEOUS INFORMATION
Below are some points regarding Hangaku Gozen I feel worth mentioning. These will give you an idea how her story has been handled, as well as developed in each passing generation. Note that all Japanese text below are followed by an English translation done by myself.
① Hangaku is not a common name, for her real name is unknown. It is possible that her name was changed later, possibly to reflect where she comes from. This is difficult to determine, for there isn’t any official documentations found from the Jō family.
② This actually brings to question as to how to pronounce her name correctly. While documented as “Hangaku”, there is an area exactly where she grew up pronounced as “Iizumi”, using the characters “飯角”. These 2 characters are also one of the written variations of her name. It’s possible that this is the correct way to say her name.
③ Over the years, as Hangaku Gozen’s story was portrayed in artworks and plays, what little information about her has expanded. While she is most recognized as a fearless warrior with bow & arrow in hand, she has also been associated with the naginata. For example, in the book “Kamakura Bushi: Bushido no Seika20“, there is a chapter that talks about her strengths. One of the lines goes like so below.
TRANSLATION: “…her unmatched speed, (they are) mowed down by her naginata, and her opposition lose sight in their advance as they are unable to harm her upon closing the distance…”
Comments like this create the image that Hangaku rode out into battle not only with the bow & arrow, but also wielding a naginata. Is it possible that this happened in the few battles she participated in, let alone learned how to use a naginata? It is a possibility. However, it is a belief that has no concrete backing. In older Japanese sources such as like “Azuma Kagami”, her using anything other than the bow and arrow is not mentioned. Expanding on an image is not unusual, for as time goes on and as stories about historical figures get passed on to newer generations, certain elements may be added or even changed to make them sound more appealing.
In Hangaku Gozen’s case, her story may have been “enhanced” due to the popularity of ukiyo-e and Kabuki. This is around the 17th century onward, the same time when women started training more with the naginata21.
④ Here’s a popular line from the “Azuma Kagami22“.
TRANSLATION: “Although a woman, she possess the ability, like a man, to skillfully hit her target with a bow.”
The key word here is “百発百中” (hyappatsu hyakuchū), which describes being proficient with the bow & arrow by “shooting 100 times and hitting the target 100 times”.
⑤ Here is another line from “Azuma Kagami”. This describes the scene during her final battle defending Tossaka Castle.
TRANSLATION: “Standing at the top of the watch tower with her hair tied up like a child, and wearing an armored haramaki, all that were shot by her arrows did not survive. Many of Sazaki Moritsune’s troops were slain in the hands of this woman.”
Hangaku was a serious thorn to the opposition. There was no safe way to get close to her and put a stop to her assault without getting shot down by her bow.
⑥ This line comes from “Azuma Kagami Shiwa23“, when Hangaku is brought before shogun Minamoto no Yoriie.
TRANSLATION: “Hangaku had a bold presence….she had the manner of a brave warrior, and her physique was excellent. However, she was an ugly woman, for one could not bear to look at her face more than once.”
This is a very different description from how Hangaku is described from her youth all the way to before her final battle. While it sounds harsh at face value, I think it is more of a compliment. To decipher this statement, I believe, is to understand the time period this all takes place.
Considering the times in (pre) medieval Japan, most women stayed at home to raise children. Women of nobility wore fine outfits and kept their features fair and attractive. Hangaku, on the other hand, was trained as a warrior and earned merits roughing it out like most men who take up arms and fight. Women were not expected to don on armor and charge into a battle, nor allowed to. Hangaku is but one of few women who has done so at a time where the warrior class was designated to men. In the last stand of the Jō household, Hangaku tied up her hair, donned on armor, and stood against her opponents valiantly. She had injuries on her as a testament of her role as a warrior. As a captive, who would give her time to freshen up and look their best in front of the shogun?
Hangaku was treated like any other men who was caught by the opposition, and left in a dirty, haggard state. This is quite frankly the true appearance of a warrior, and Hangaku fit the bill.
This concludes this post on Hangaku Gozen. This historical tale has evolved quite a bit in Japan, and may possibly do so more if more exposure about Hangaku appears worldwide. I hope everyone enjoyed reading this, and stay tuned for the next post!
1) The most common way of writing “Hangaku” is 板額. Other ways include 飯額, 飯角, and 坂額. All of these are said to be pronounced as “Hangaku” in Japanese sources. In English sources, especially online, it is said that her name can also be pronounced as “Itagaki”, but this is possibly a mistake in the reading of her name.
2) Keep in mind that historical records around or after the Heian Period were written by the victorious and those in power. Hangaku Gozen and her family’s information comes from the records written by the Minamoto clan, which were their rivals. Some things may have been changed to suit the victors, including names of those who opposed them. This includes Hangaku Gozen.
3) Tomoe Gozen is quite possibly the most renown female warrior from the pages of Japanese literature, as well as dotted upon possibly throughout the world. Tomoe fought on the side of the Minamoto clan as they struggled for power against the Taira clan in the late 12th century.
4) Written as “城”, thus literally means “castle”. In Japanese, this surname is written as “城氏”, with the 2nd character giving indication to this.
7) 山居寺城. Note that while she was born here, and possibly raised here at an early age, Hangaku and her family moved at some point. It is not stated when this happened.
9) 資永. Also written as 助長.
10) 長茂. Birthname was Sukemochi (助茂), but changed to Nagamochi later after taking position as head of the Jō household after the death of his older brother, Sukenaga. At some point, also used the name “Sukemoto” (助職 or 資職).
11) 資盛, which can also written as 助盛. Sukemochi also had the nickname “Kotarō” (小太郎).
12) 鳥坂城. At times, written as “Torisaka Castle” in English, but this could be in error due to the use of the same name with this pronunciation in other areas in Japan. Jo Sukenaga became owner of Tossaka Castle in 1180, followed by his younger brother Nagamochi around mid 1181.
13) 木曽義仲. He is otherwise known as Minamoto Yoshinaka (源義仲).
18) 浅利義遠. Also known as “Yoshinari” (義成).
20) 鎌倉武士 : 武士道の精華. Written by Takai Ranzan (高井蘭山), and published in 1916.
21) You can read more how the naginata developed into a self defense weapon for women in Japan in an earlier post of mine here.
22) 吾妻鏡. This is a compilation of written records (around 52 scrolls, missing the 45th scroll) maintained by the Bakufu, from 1180 to 1266.
22) 吾妻鏡史話. Written by Hagiwara Tokio (萩原時夫), and published in 1936.