Ninjas are undoubtedly one of the most well-known tropes in Japanese pop culture. As practitioners of ninjutsu, the warriors who followed this path were referred to as shinobi. But it would be incorrect to assume that the role of black-clad assassin was reserved solely for men.
Women could be moulded into the ultimate expression of death as well and they were known as Kunoichi, a term that’s evolved to mean ‘female ninja’ in the modern day. So, what is the history of these mysterious figures and how did they function within Japanese society?
The word ‘Kunoichi’ comes from the names of characters that match the three strokes in the kanji character for ‘woman’ (女, onna) and are split into the following order:
- くis a character that becomes ‘ku’
- ノis a character that becomes ‘no’
- 一 is a character that becomes ‘ichi’which means ‘one.’
Translated to English, ‘Kunoichi’ becomes ‘nine plus one.’ What this means from a Japanese perspective is that a woman was meant to have ten holes in her body compared to a man, who had nine holes to be found in places like the ears, mouth and eyes. Yet like the origins of so many badass warrior factions, there are many interpretations of the name.
Role in Japanese society
The exploits of the kunoichi were first recorded into a 17th century handbook called the Bansensukai, which described kunoichi-no-jutsu (a technique to use a female). According to the text, kunoichi operated as infiltrators, spies and assassins. They spent time in enemy houses, reported secrets and undermined rival houses by any means necessary.
Kunoichi could use their gender to their advantage because women were underestimated as warriors. This made it easier for them to get closer to their targets by posing as maids, geisha, servants and priestesses. In some cases, they were taken on as concubines and mistresses, giving them unparalleled access to all their marks.
If they were exposed, the kunoichi employed confusion tactics such as shedding their kimono and screaming loudly. Misdirection and deceit were all part of an average day.
Weapons of the kunoichi
Like the shinobi, kunoichi were taught how to use a variety of deadly weapons. This ranged from tessen (steel fans) which could be hidden in plain sight, to blades and short katanas.
Yet the most popular weapon of choice for kunoichi were the neko-te, razor sharp metal claws attached to leather straps. Ranging between one to three inches, the claws could tear at a target’s skin. The neko-te could also be dipped in poison to cause a quicker death.
Kunoichi vs onna bugeisha
Women in high society were no strangers to battle and many samurai wives were referred to as onna-bugeisha (female martial artist). And it’s important to note that kunoichi were different in their tactics and weaponry, just as the shinobi differed from samurai.
Kunoichi were used for spy missions, while the onna bugeisha fought during times of great turbulence, such as in the Genpai War. Onna bugeisha waged battle in the open, wielding curved polearms like the naginata. In contrast, kunoichi fighting tactics were stealth based and relied on factors like the element of surprise and poison.
To learn more about the fighting spirit of Japanese women, be sure to check out Yamato Magazine’s Women Warrior series.