Female Ninja

In 1561, the Japanese warlord Mochizuki Moritoki was killed in the famous Battle of Kawanakajima. His wife Chiyome then placed herself under the protection of her late husband’s uncle, the powerful Takeda Shingen. Rather than retiring to a religious order and leading the quiet life of a nun, as was customary in such situations, the dynamic Mochizuki widow continued to vigorously support the great Daimyō Takeda’s aspirations to power. In response to his question, she agreed to set up a network of kunoichi agents. It was to become one of the most effective and discreet of all sengoku jidai.

According to Shingen Takeda’s idea, Mochizuki Chiyome trained a group of trained miko (female temple servants) who, in addition to their actual duties, were employed for espionage, surveillance, or courier activities in the Kai area (present-day Yamanashi) of the Takeda dominion, as well as in the Shinano territory (today Niigata) could be used. The latter area, in particular, was of the greatest strategic interest, as both Takeda Shingen and his rival Uesugi Kenshin considered it a prime target for their future conquests.

Spies and Informants

During his reign, Takeda placed great emphasis on the services of his Ninja spies. He recruited them both from his own domain and the ranks of his opponents. The kunoichi were just another link in his chain of informants. They served him well for intelligence gathering or checking other agents’ reports. The young temple servants could easily travel around and contact the local spies without arousing suspicion. In this way, the power and knowledge of the Takeda family could be increased even further.

Chiyome established her underground school in Nazu, a village in Chiisa Gun (Shinshu area, now Nagano), and began her work as the director of a school for female Ninja. Since the miko always had to be unmarried young girls, Mochizuki Chiyome began to look for suitable candidates among the countless children orphaned and homeless as a result of the civil wars. The kunoichi trainer became the foster mom to every abandoned or runaway girl who found her way to the Shinshu area. In the eyes of the other residents of Nazu, Chiyome was a kind, warm-hearted woman who struggled with all her might to save young single girls from poverty and give them a home and instill spiritual values.

Female Ninja Training

The girls were taught the customs, duties, and knowledge of the miko virgins who served the priests of the Shinto shrines. In addition to this basic training, Chiyome’s protégés were also subjected to an indoctrination process that was intended to guarantee absolute loyalty later on. By constantly reminding the girls that it was she who had lifted them from their poverty and made this new life possible for them, she emotionally bound the future kunoichi to her. Again and again, she asked her protégés to remember their childhood. Who was to blame for their poverty at the time? Who had betrayed her? Who found them in this unhappy time and gave them a new life when all seemed lost? Gradually, the girls were led to believe that their only chance of survival was to maintain strong bonds with their sisters and to show unwavering loyalty to Mochizuki Chiyome.

In a third phase of the training, the trainer taught her students how to obtain valuable information, assess situations correctly, use (false) rumors to create confusion and disputes, identify reliable messengers who forward important messages to other miko-kunoichi, disguise themselves, and how one can, if necessary, use the feminine charms to manipulate men. Once training and indoctrination at the Ninja academy in Nazu was complete, the girls became active agents of Mochizuki’s kunoichi squad.

In this way, important information from the two target provinces was collected. In addition, Chiyome had travelers who had passed through the areas concerned questioned in detail and was thus able to give Takeda Shingen an exact picture of the political and military situation. To preserve the effectiveness and anonymity of the kunoichi ring, Mochizuki’s Chiyome role was not known to anyone but the general himself; he did not share this secret even with his closest associates.

Similarities and Differences to Ninja

The medieval kunoichi were trained similarly to their male combatants, but with more emphasis on the more refined aspects of hand-to-hand combat. The male Ninja’s combat tactics and guerrilla warfare replaced the females with skills such as practical psychology, manipulation techniques, and intuition training. Of course, preparation for active service also included solid basic training in the Ninjutsu martial arts of taijutsu, bōjutsu and hanbōjutsu, tantōjutsu, yarijutsu, and kenjutsu. The individual fighting techniques were adapted to the specific situation of the physically weaker woman and included, among other things, Escape methods and fending off stronger male opponents; Assaults on guard posts or military positions, similar to those of a shock troop, were reserved for the male Ninja.

Text: Stefan Imhoff