Female assassins may be portrayed as sexy in the movies, but victims of the Kunoichi – female ninja assassins in medieval Japan – probably didn’t think so… at least, not once they realised who they had let into their beds.
Like their male counterparts, the Kunoichi were trained in disguise, stealth and combat, but, unlike most male ninjas, they were also spies and their method of attack was quite different. In a way, the Kunoichi had it easier than male ninjas, because women were usually trusted and seen as harmless, while unknown men were seen as a potential threat. This made it easier for Kunoichi to infiltrate an enemy household or temple, posing as servants, courtesans, performers or even prostitutes.
Ninja training focussed on using the trainee’s strengths to his or her advantage, so, if a female trainee was exceptionally beautiful, she would be taught to use her looks as a weapon. Unlike many people thought in medieval times, beauty did not mean that Kunoichi were otherwise useless – these women were just as deadly in combat as any male ninja.
Ninjas were trained in the use of a variety of weapons and most could use a sword, but Kunoichi were particularly good with daggers, bladed fans, hair needles, poisons, garrottes and sharpened claw-like finger extensions called neko-te. In fact, the neko-te was usually the Kunoichi’s weapon of choice, and they often poisoned the claws. Kunoichi were also taught to dance, sing and play instruments, skills that came in handy when pretending to be someone they were not.
Kunoichi instilled greater fear than male ninjas, who were easier to discover in time to prevent the assassination. Women, however, were almost impossible to discover in time, because they entered boldly as servants or mistresses, and waited until they were trusted before making a move. Crying in order to draw in a victim was one method unavailable to male ninjas – the Kunoichi would sometimes cry, manipulating the victim-to-be into feeling as if he should help her or ask what’s wrong, and that would be the death of him.
Some of the ninjas’ assignments were suicide missions, and others were lifelong, such as in cases where the ninja was instructed to spy on someone until one of them died or the ninja’s true identity was discovered. Other female ninjas, called Mikko, guarded sanctuaries and temples, and these were mostly respected rather than feared.