Women Warriors puts the focus on inspirational and legendary Japanese women who’ve left their mark on history. The original female warriors of Japanese culture were the onna-bugeisha and their more secretive cousins, the kunoichi. The latter were female ninjas who earned a fearsome reputation as spies and assassins, striking from the shadows.
All kunoichi traced their history back to the story of Mochizuki Chiyome. The founder of the order, Chiyome is a figure shrouded in mystery and legend.
Sparking the fuse
As is to be expected with legendary folk heroes, there’s a lot of contradictory opinions about Chiyome and her existence. Some historians believe she wasn’t real, while others say her name was used by several different women. Another camp believe she did exist though her exploits were greatly exaggerated.
But Chiyome’s story is worth telling because it highlights the indomitable female spirit and provides a window into the role of Japanese women during the 16th century. The wife of Shinano’s Saku region samurai lord, Mochizuki Moritoki, Chiyome was a descendent of the ninja Mochizuki Izumo-no-Kami.
A dutiful wife, she supported her husband and didn’t get involved in active combat until he was killed in the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima in 1561. Chiyome was approached by the daimyo of the Takeda clan, Takeda Shingen and taken under his wing.
Founding the kunoichi
Wanting to give her a purpose, Takeda gave Chiyome a mission to recruit women into an underground network of spies to be unleashed on rival warlords. The daimyo recognised Chiyome’s fighting ability and leadership potential, as she came from a long line of Koga ninjas.
Accepting her mission, Chiyome set up in the village of Nezu in the Shinshu region and started recruiting. Chiyome began by taking in orphaned girls and prostitutes, whose lives had been ruined by the civil wars of the Sengoku period.
To the outside world, Chiyome appeared to be a benevolent motherly figure, giving the girls a better life. In reality, she trained them to be spies, seductresses and killers. The girls were taught the way of the miko (wandering Shinto priestesses), which gave them the ability to travel all over Japan without drawing suspicion. They were the first kunoichi.
Building a network
Chiyome continued to train her kunoichi in various ways. Her warriors learned how to be actresses and geisha, which gave them access to royal courts and noblemen too drunk or stupid to resist a pretty face. Under Chiyome’s guidance, the kunoichi became extremely effective, as women were underestimated during the period. Information leaked, assassinations were carried out and the infamy of the female ninjas grew.
At its peak, Chiyome’s organisation was thought to have between 200 – 300 agents. She remained fiercely loyal to Takeda, making him aware of all plots. This information kept Takeda one step ahead of his enemies until his death in 1573. From that point on, Chiyome disappeared from history.
Whether she existed or not, Mochizuki Chiyome’s story has fascinated historians for centuries. Her name is synonymous with the image of the female ninja, making her a pop culture immortal.
Interested to learn more about the tactics of the kunoichi? Be sure to read Yamato Magazine’s analysis of their history.