Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got a lot of ninja qualities right: their preference for sticking to the shadows, the emphasis on reconnaissance and espionage, and, of course, their choice of weapons all adhere to the ninja “code”. The one thing that could have put such an intriguing kid’s show over the top would have been the inclusion of a female ninja turtle. But females have no place in war or espionage. After all, is not April more of a “damsel in distress” in the original cartoon? It might be interesting for some fans of the ninja turtles—or fans of the history of ninja warriors—to learn that women did partake in the art of ninjutsu. In fact, these kunoichi were among the most elite and skilled of the ninja class.
Ninja, Shinobi, and Kunoichi
Ninjas are practitioners of the espionage based military tactic called ninjutsu, belonging to the Japanese class of shinobi. It is often incorrectly assumed that ninjas are strictly males, particularly in historical contexts, because of the prevalence of male dominated societies in which women are regulated to the background either as wives or figureheads (if royal). However, women worked alongside men, as powerful stealthy assets in the shinobi clans ( shinobi is the “correct” title for ninja warriors) in groups called kunoichi.
Drawing of the archetypical ninja from a series of sketches (Hokusai manga) by Hokusai. Woodblock print on paper. Volume six, 1817. ( Public Domain )
The kunoichi are recorded as powerful devotees of ninjutsu in the 17th century in a tome called Bansenshukai, a collection ninja training secrets. Kunoichi warriors seemingly predate their documentation in this text—by how long, it is uncertain. Yet one woman, Mochizuki Chiyome, is believed to have successfully created a secret kunoichi cohort in feudal Japan in the 16th century.
A representation of Chiyome with her kunoichi. ( CC BY SA )
Using Womanly Wiles to Their Deadly Advantage
The consistent belief that women were no more than beautiful arm candy or ignorant wives boded well for the kunoichi, as it allowed them to become close to their targets—usually men of the samurai class—either to gain information or to kill. While men were always on the lookout for suspicious men, rarely were they on the lookout for suspicious women. Women were far more likely to be able to maintain their disguises than men, as the samurai rarely hired strange men for advice, aid or protection, but they readily took on concubines or pretty mistresses.
Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the “47 loyal ronin.”( CC BY SA 2.0 ) She was an Onna-bugeisha, a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility.
Thus, kunoichi often disguised themselves as performers, courtesans, maids, Shinto priestesses, etc., which enabled them to gain access to the most intimate parts of the samurai’s life. (Priestesses were not prohibited from travel as it was considered part of their religious education.) Women were therefore able to infiltrate deeper than men in more dangerous zones; if a samurai ever found out the depth of the deception he had fallen for, the price a woman would have had to pay for such intimate betrayal would likely have been worse than those of an exposed shinobi.
Red female ninja. (Dani_vr/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Yet, as horrifying as the punishments for discovered kunoichi likely were, when it was necessary to assassinate their own targets, their executions were equally—if not more—terrible for their cunning and craftiness.
A modern representation of Mochizuki Chiyome, a woman who created a secret kunoichi cohort in feudal Japan in the 16th century. Source: CC BY SA
Weapons of Choice for Female Assassins
While female ninjas used their sexuality and beauty to gain access to their targets, they did not step aside for a male ninja to take out the target when he was most vulnerable. Rather, the women also took care of assassinations themselves. Some poignant weapons used were rather typical of those shown in historical spy and ninja movies today: fans with hidden blades, daggers, various forms of poison, slim katana swords, and the famous throwing stars.
Yet, the weapon of choice for the kunoichi was, essentially, Wolverine claws. Made of “leather finger sheaths topped with sharpened metal ‘claws,'” the neko-te were the next best thing to possessing feline claws. The metal weapons ranged from one to three inches (2.5-7.6 cm) in length – easily long enough and sharp enough to tear away a man’s flesh. A particularly vindictive female might even dip her claws in poison to exacerbate pain or, if she was feeling kind, quicken death.
Neko-te was the weapon of choice for the kunoichi. ( Neatorama)
Regardless of the common misconceptions about the gender of ninjas, the kunoichi definitively had a place in both feudal and shogun-centered Japan. Women like Mochizuki Chiyome took up arms to risk life and limb to gain access to powerful enemies and ensure the protection of their leaders and government.
Though few kunoichi are known by name, those that are reveal that these women were, in fact, highly respected by the men who hired them and worked alongside them. And they were certainly a force to be reckoned with by their enemies.
Female ninja 2.0. (blendermagician/ CC BY 3.0 )
Top Image: A female ninja. ( The Martial Arts Woman )
By Ryan Stone