Kunoichi: Female Ninja Spies of Medieval Japan

Most Westerners think of ninjas as black-masked men with swords who appear from the shadows and strike without warning.

But not all ninja assassins were male, and not all of them walked in shadow.

Female ninjas, known as kunoichi, formed an important part of medieval shinobi clans. Like their male counterparts, kunoichi trained in combat, disguise, and stealth, though their missions and function differed from those of male shinobi in several important ways.

Disguises and Tactics

Shinobi (which is the Japanese pronounciation of the characters Westerners read as “ninja”) worked as spies as well as assassins. All shinobi could kill in the line of duty, and many did, but others acted as covert agents—often deep undercover in enemy territory.

A courtesan's costume of the Kamakura Period in JapanMedieval Japan was ruled and dominated by men of the samurai class. Samurai rarely trusted strangers, but often made exceptions for women, either because of their beauty or because the woman filled a “harmless” social role (a maid, for example). Kunoichi frequently posed as performers, courtesans, or servants. In these disguises, kunoichi infiltrated temples, castles, and fortresses, either to gather information or to strike at well-protected targets male assassins could not reach.

A male shinobi might assume the role of a samurai retainer or an artisan, but those positions seldom allowed the assassin unfettered access to his target. Samurai lived well-defended lives. Assassinations by male ninja often took the form of clandestine (usually nocturnal) missions, a medieval form of “seek and destroy.”

The costume of a courtesan from Japan's medieval period, By contrast, a kunoichi could gain her target’s trust until he allowed her intimate access, at which point she could attack—when both his pants and his guard were down.

Shinobi training for both genders focused on utilizing the ninja’s personal strengths to best advantage. In medieval Japan, where women were often prized for beauty rather than skill, a kunoichi’s beauty was one of her most valuable—and deadly—weapons.

But that doesn’t mean the female ninja depended exclusively on her looks. In combat, kunoichi were just as deadly, and as well-trained, as any other shinobi.

Special Weapons

Like their male counterparts, kunoichi trained with a variety of weapons. Most knew how to use a sword, though female ninjas usually specialized in close hand-to-hand combat—which meant a preference for daggers, garrotes, poisons, and specialty items like bladed fans and claw-like finger extensions known as neko-te.

An example of  neko-te or cat's claws, a weapon used by kunoichi in medieval JapanNeko-te, in particular, were used almost exclusively by kunoichi. The weapon consists of leather finger sheaths topped with sharpened metal “claws.” The sheaths slipped over the end of the wearer’s fingers, giving the kunoichi a set of lethal, tiger-like claws that measured from one to three inches in length. Many women poisoned the metal claws for added effect.

Neko-te slipped on in an instant but disappeared just as quickly into a pocket or the sleeve of a kimono, facilitating surprise attacks and helping the kunoichi avoid discovery.

Visibility—or lack thereof

In some ways, kunoichi inspired more fear than their masculine counterparts because of their ability to mimic different types of women that samurai often regarded as harmless. Samurai guards could watch the roof and patrol the corridors of a warlord’s castle. Lanterns and watchmen on the walls could stop a shinobi from sneaking in unseen. But kunoichi didn’t sneak inside under cover of darkness and they rarely killed their targets right away. A kunoichi took her time, earning the target’s trust and often becoming a part of his household. From that trusted position, she passed information to his enemies or struck when he let his defenses down.

When it came to infiltrating samurai strongholds, the kunoichi’s ability to adopt the role of a mistress or servant had obvious advantages over the disguises a male could use. High-ranking samurai chose retainers from among their relatives and trusted associates, making it harder for male shinobi to reach a position from which he could spy or strike at the target effectively. A woman, on the other hand, needed only to appeal to the target’s natural attractions, particularly when she approached in the guise of a courtesan or professional entertainer.

Then, as now, sex sells … and dangerous sex can kill.

Respect

Both male and female ninjas operated as undercover agents, some so deeply in disguise that they could never return to their former lives. Some assignments were permanent—to spy on a target as long as he lived or until the shinobi’s identity came to light. Other assignments took the form of suicide missions—to infiltrate and strike the target, even though the shinobi would die in the process.

From Japan's 13th century, artwork of the attack at Sanjo Palace

Kunoichi weren’t exempt from suicide missions or deep undercover assignments. In most ways, they acted and were treated the same as their masculine counterparts, though with tactics, assignments, and weapons suited to their differing strengths. In medieval Japan, this wasn’t considered “discrimination”—just a proper exploitation of tactical advantage.

Modern Westerners might not recognize a killer in a courtesan’s dress, but in samurai Japan, a wise man knew that a dagger often lurked in a beautiful woman’s bladed fan.

Leading image via Getabo at Deviant Art. Kamakura-era courtesan via The Costume Museum. Neko-te via author's website. Attack scene via Fischer Art History.


Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. Claws of the Cat, her debut shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori, releases on July 16, 2013, from Minotaur Books. Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding, and she keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. You can find Susan on Twitter @SusanSpann.

Comments

  1. Lana Baker

    Fascinating. Using a team’s individual and collective strengths seems like good tactical strategy to me. Pleased the Japanese saw it that way, too. 😀

  2. SusanSpann

    Pretty cool, isn’t it? The Japanese attention to tactical strengths-and their ability to see beyond gender lines in doing so- has always struck me as a fascinating aspect of the culture!

  3. Max

    Too bad that kind of attitude seems to be non-existent in todays Japan

  4. CALEB

    I love Japan, I’m a huge admirer of their culture and beliefs. I am glad they were as mean to women as men in America, bringing their beliefs from Britain and Europe.

    Women deserve just as much oppotunity as men. America would have treated women better if Japan had settled here before colonists. Glad tho that women are getting better roles in America now, but men need to step aside.

  5. Ash

    This is a very interesting and informative article! It would be even better if it didn’t try to push so hard the idea of sexism being non-existent in shinobi culture. The author is obviously entranced by the idea of kunoichi to the point of being determined to not notice anything that could paint a somewhat unflattering picture.

    I understand the impulse. However, ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Let me point out something that I noticed.

    First of all, the fact that kunoichi’s beauty was her most valuable weapon doesn’t get negated by the fact that they were trained in combat as extensively as their male counterparts. What I hear is that kunoichi had to do the same training as men, and care about their appearance on top of that. More so, you mentioned that male shinobi didn’t gain a lot of ground by going undercover, from which follows that it was a rare endeavor. I have to say, sneaking around without being spotted or detained is much easier than lying about your whole life, your identity, your dreams and goals day to day, to the faces of people you spend all your time with. Kunoichi’s undercover roles required much more mental fortitude than men’s assassination work. Not to mention, the author implied that they were also not allowed to refuse to sleep with their targets by mentioning their sexual allure and then bringing up the fact that some assignments were life-long. Excuse me, but what I see here is that kunoichi had to endure sexual harassment and rape as a part of their job. While men – yes, you guessed it, – did not.

    Second, the author mentions that kunoichi inspired more fear but fails to mention any preventive measures that the men would take against them. I see two possibilities: either kunoichi weren’t feared, for the simple reason that most of their targets never noticed their presence and therefore dismissed their existence as a tale; or, in order to be safe from them, men subjected every new woman in their presence to scrutiny, possibly in form of searches or other invasive and humiliating procedures, thinking that kunoichi would try to kill them on the spot and that would be when they took her out. Neither of possibilities is very inspiring or empowering.

    And finally, the author felt the need to use the last paragraphs to reiterate the absence of sexism here. This is not very reassuring or convincing, sadly.

    “They acted and were treated the same as their masculine counterparts.” This is… doubtful. Again, talking about medieval Japan here. Shinobi didn’t exist in vacuum. Even now, sexism has to be unlearned, and that’s when we have officially equal (mostly) rights and so many resources to help us!

    “In medieval Japan, this wasn’t considered “discrimination”.” Many things weren’t considered discrimination back then, in many countries. Not a very well thought-out statement.

    “Just a proper exploitation of tactical advantage.” I wouldn’t call sexism in society an advantage, if I were you. After all, if it really was one, why would women all over the world push back against it? Kunoichi may have learned how to use a constant discrimination to reach their goals, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered from it. If may to draw a comparison, when a blind person is the only one able to function normally when their company is incapacitated by not being able to see in the dark, they may have gotten a temporary advantage in this particular situation, but that doesn’t change or negate the amount of discrimination they have to face on a regular basis.

    I would like to reiterate that I understand the author’s desire to see the best in people. As one human being to another, I’m glad that the author looks at the world with hope and optimism! The world could use more happy people, honestly.

    Still, there is optimism, and there is willful ignorance. The problem isn’t going to stop existing if you ignore it, you’ll only become prone to making the same mistakes all over again!

    If you read this far, thank you for your time! Please feel free to do your research on systemic sexism, history of Japan, or anything else that strikes your fancy. If this comment made you stop and think of how often systemic discrimination goes dismissed or unnoticed, even for a moment, then my job here is done.

  6. psn codes free

    This is a very interesting and informative article! It would be even better if it didn’t try to push so hard the idea of sexism being non-existent in shinobi culture. The author is obviously entranced by the idea of kunoichi to the point of being determined to not notice anything that could paint a somewhat unflattering picture.

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