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Kunoichi: Talented and Mysterious Female Ninjas in Japanese History

In Japan’s history, there were valiant but little-known female Samurai who possessed melancholic swordsmanship; the shinobi world also had a female Ninja with enough talent called Kunoichi. However, the fact of their existence is still debatable because there are not many historical sources that record Kunoichi’s existence.

Who is Kunoichi?

Originally, Kunoichi (くノ一) was a slang name for a lady in the Edo period but was rarely used; it has increasingly been used to signify “female ninja” in popular culture because to the work “Ninpou” Hakkenden” (1964) by author Yamada Futaro.

As a female Ninja, Kunoichi also got Ninjutsu training specifically for them, learned numerous weapons, and became a spy to obtain hidden information. They are, however, schooled in a range of other talents, such as those of shrine maidens Miko, Geisha, and even prostitutes, in order to perform without suspicion. As a result, Kunoichi was able to quickly infiltrate regions that male Ninjas found impossible to approach.

Regarding the origin of “Kunoichi,”  the word is said to have formed from characters that resemble the three strokes of the character “女 – Onna – Female”: the first stroke resembles the letter “く- Ku” in the Hiragara alphabet, the second stroke resembles the letter “ノ – No” in the Katakana alphabet, and the dash resembles the Kanji “一” meaning “one.”

Controversy concerning the existence of Kunoichi

Despite the fact that Kunoichi appear in various works of art, including novels, television shows, movies, and manga, some historians deny their existence.

According to a study undertaken by Mie University historians such as Yuuji Yamada, Katsuya Yoshimaru, and other members, there is still no historical document that documents female ninjas carrying out reconnaissance missions within insects like male Ninja.

Anthology “Bansenshukai”. Photo: Tumblr

According to Yoshimaru, the name “Kunoichi,” used to indicate “female ninja,” is solely derived from the influential modern novel “Ninpou Hakkenden” by author Yamada Futaro.

However, in volume 8 of the Ninja manual “Bansenshukai” written in 1676, “Kunoichi-no-jutsu” (くノ一の術) was described and interpreted as the ninjutsu utilized. by women.

The anthology “Bansenshukai” covers knowledge of the ninja clans of the Iga and Kouka regions. According to this book, Kunoichi’s main duty is to infiltrate the enemy’s household as a spy to acquire intelligence, aiming to earn their trust in order to eavesdrop on hidden discussions. When spying tasks are tough to execute as a male Ninja, Kunoichi-no-jutsu is used.

The existence of Kunoichi is further substantiated by the historical incidence of real female Ninjas. A descendant of aristocrats, Mochizuki Chiyome, who lived in the 16th century and fought for the warlord Takeda Shingen, obeyed and recruited women to join a spy corps of hundreds.

Kunoichi’s Weapon

Kunoichi’s weapon in “Bansenshukai”, photo: Mystery Tribune

According to the “Bansenshukai,”  Kunoichi is also trained to master various weapons, including the Neko-te, which is used as a false fingernail to stab an opponent’s neck and can be poisoned before assassination.

In addition, the female Ninja also uses Tessen, a folding fan made of metal, as a secret weapon. By that time, the fan had become a familiar personal object for many people, thus suspicion would be averted. In addition, the Kunoichi also poisoned the opponent’s alcohol to quickly destroy them.

Mochizuki Chiyome, legendary female ninja

Mochizuki Chiyome. Photo: assassinscreed.fandom.com

Mochizuki Chiyome (望月 千代女) is a symbol of Japanese women’s courageous battle spirit when she led the Kunoichi army of hundreds of people serving the Takeda clan. As a “martial arts writer,” Chiyome is also a poet.

She is a descendant of the 15th-century Ninja Mochizuki Izumo-no-Kami, of the Koga Ninja clan, and married to Mochizuki Moritoki, the Samurai lord of Saku District, Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture) (now Nagano Prefecture). Her husband is herself a distant relative of Izumo-no-Kami.

Mochizuki Chiyome, photo: swordsofnorthshire.com

However, disaster struck her life when her husband, Moritoki, died in battle in the Kawanakajima series of engagements from 1553 to 1564 between the warlord Takeda Shingen, who ruled Kai Province (now Yamanashi Province), and the warlord Uesugi Kenshin from Japan. Echigo Prefecture (this is Niigata Prefecture) (this is Niigata Prefecture).

Since then, Chiyome has been sponsored by her husband’s uncle, Lord Takeda Shingen, the chief of the Takeda clan. Lord Takeda then handed Chiyome the duty of establishing a female Ninja team against the opposing soldiers.

Battle of Kawanakajima between Takeda Shingen’s army (left) and Uesugi Kenshin’s force (right). Photo: Wikipedia

The strategy that Lord Takeda wants to pursue is to completely train an army of female spies to gather intelligence for the Takeda clan’s group. After thinking about it, the lord determined that Chiyome was the most ideal individual for this assignment because she came from the prestigious Koga Ninja bloodline.

Accepting the duty handed to her, Chiyome deployed the plan in Nezu village in the Shinshuu region (now Tomi, Nagano prefecture) and conducted a search for potential recruits. Accordingly, she recruited flower girls, victims of the Warring States era conflicts, and orphaned young girls.

It was uncovered that women were severely trained by Chiyome to become female intelligence officers, beauties who seduced men, assassins, and were even taught the abilities of the shrine maiden Miko in Shinto shrines to enhance their operations. Over time, the army of female spies also learned the techniques of other professions, like as actors, prostitutes, and geisha, to effortlessly act in many various circumstances.

In the end, the skilled female Ninja Chiyome developed a spy network of 200 to 300 persons under the Takeda clan. With the support of powerful Kunoichi forces, Lord Takeda is always informed of the enemy’s developments, helping him to keep one step ahead of his opponents for a long time, until the lord’s tragic death in 1573. News of the female Ninja Chiyome rapidly vanished from historical records after then.

Mochizuki Chiyome has inspired movies and video games

As the rare real female Ninja in history, Chiyome became an inspiration for numerous filmmakers, painters, and video game producers. In the 1979 movie “Sanada Yukimura no Bouryaku” (English title: The Shogun Assassins), actress Yatsuko Tanami played the female Ninja Chiyome; in addition, she also became the primary character in the historical novel “Risuko” by David Kudler.

Iga FC Kunoichi, photo: Twitter

In particular, Chiyome is the female Ninja image utilized by numerous video game producers, such as the main heroine in the game “Red Ninja: End of Honor” or appearing in “Samurai Warriors,”  “Ambition: Nobunaga’s Souzou (DLC),”  “Puzzle & Dragons,” and “Toukiden: The Age of Demons.”

In addition, the women’s football club of Iga City, Mie Prefecture, also took the name of the female Ninja as the team name “Iga FC Kunoichi” or the movie “Kunoichi” (2011) by director Seiji Chiba were all inspired by the name of the team. These mysterious female spies

Noah

You see, my love for Japan is not only based on personal experience; it's based on a deep admiration for Japanese culture, history, and traditions. Thank you, Japan, for being a constant source of inspiration, joy, and wonder in my life. I may never be able to express my love for Japan in person, but I hope that through my blog and my writing, I can share a small piece of my admiration and devotion with the world.

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