Kunoichi… female ninja

When I think of female ninja, a picture pops into my head of a badass women, all in black, wearing tabi boots and carrying shuriken stars and swords. Sadly, this is not the reality of these women. They were definitely badass, but usually a little more understated and certainly less recognisable than their male counterparts, as seen in popular culture, anyways. Trying to find information about them was not overly simple. Some of the stories are factually questionable, but exciting and interesting, nonetheless.

Ninja is the on-yomi, or Chinese reading of the kanji. The Japanese reading, or kun-yomi, is shinobi. Both male and female shinobi were covert operatives. The manner in which they gleaned information was quite different, though. Active from perhaps as early as the 12th century, the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Era, was when ninja were most active in Japan. However, after Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun and peace descended across Japan, ninjas became somewhat obsolete and vanished.

Of all the perhaps fanciful stories about female warriors in Japanese history, my favourite story is that of Mochizuki Chiyome, a Samurai class woman from the Sengoku Period of history (1467-1600). Chiyome was a direct descendant of Mochizuki Izumo-No-Kami and her husband, Mochizuki Moritoki, was killed in the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima in 1561. Moritoki was a nephew of Takeda Shingen, a powerful daimyo (lord), and after being widowed, Takeda Shingen cared for and enlisted Chiyome to recruit a network of female spies and agents to gather information.

Chiyome set up her operation in Nezu, which is now the city of Tomi in Nagano. She recruited prostitutes, orphans, victims of the ongoing Warring States civil war, and lost and abandoned girls. These women were trained in espionage and to be assassins. They would seduce potential enemies or rival warlords, and extricate their secrets from them. The story has between 200 and 300 women joining in Chiyome’s underground army of female ninja the Kunoichi.

Another woman, Hatsumi no Tsubone, was sent by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the final shogunate family, to spy on his enemy, Ishide Mitsunari, before the famed Battle of Sekigahara. Hatsumi no Tsubone fell in love with Mitsunari and betrayed Tokugawa. She was condemned to death.

Japanese history, like all history, is difficult to substantiate and primary evidence of any of this information is reasonably difficult to find. There is, however, a book called the Bansen Shukai, a “ninja” manual, if you will, first published in 1676. This book acknowledges female operatives and poses that they did not usually become involved in battle, but posed as maids or shrine maidens in hostile residences and places. It confirms that some Kunoichi slept with enemies for secrets and that they were very skilled in surveillance and silent assissination.


Whether the stories are true or false or somewhere in-between, they shed some light on perceptions of Japanese women in history. Silently strong, capable and sometimes fierce and formidable. However, generally under the control of powerful men, even when skilled, intelligent and intimidating. The Warring States Period, Sengoku Jidai, was not for the feint of heart, male or female.

Bansen shukai photo credit here.

Leave a Reply