In the West we have a cultural obsession with the ninja and the history and facts surrounding them. They play a part in our movies, in our books and comics and it's gotten to the point where everyone knows, or thinks they know, about the ninja. But what about the kunoichi? Who were they, and why don't we hear more about them?
What Is A Kunoichi?
For those who've never heard the term before a kunoichi is the name assigned to a female ninja. That's it; nothing more and nothing less. They received roughly the same training that male ninja did, with a few changes and alterations for their unique assignments.
What Kind of Unique Assignments?
Throughout history spies have never been shy about using women's femininity and sexuality to get information. Since ninja, and by extent the kunoichi, were spies first and foremost they would often take on a variety of cover identities. Traveling performers, monks, and artisans were all common guises for these agents to wear while keeping their eyes and ears open. Given how regimented Japanese society was though there were certain places that men just couldn't go that women could. The kunoichi could disguise themselves as temple maidens, house keepers, dancers, and even prostitutes in ways that men simply couldn't in order to slide into sensitive areas.
It was the necessity of cover identities which required the kunoichi to be trained ways similar to what one would associate with geisha (though geisha wouldn't exist until centuries after the disappearance of the ninja). The training included music, dance, art, etiquette, seduction, and in how to impersonate people and professions. This was in addition to learning the necessary skills and weapons taught to their male counterparts.
Did Kunoichi Act As Assassins?
This is something of a confusion in facts, since ninja of both genders were primarily used as spies. While they were capable of eliminating dangerous targets these secret agents only acted as assassins under strict orders; much like intelligence operatives in today's world of cloak-and-dagger espionage. When kunoichi did assassinate a target though it was much more common for a them to kill with a "woman's weapon" like poison or a steel fan that could be transported past guards without question and deployed at a moment's notice. Bigger, more cumbersome items were usually set aside in favor of weapons like the hand claws or daggers which could rip and tear vital organs in seconds on an unsuspecting target.
Why Don't We Hear More About Kunoichi?
The answer to that one is complicated... but the easy one is that we're just now beginning to get more information about them in the Western consciousness. With all of the attention being paid to ninja the fact of kunoichi's existence is finally beginning to filter into other countries that have an interest in women who were a big part of this historical period. Lots of people, men and women both, are very interested in female ninja who were just as capable as their male counterparts. If the interest stays strong chances are good that we'll see a great deal more about these women and their unique place in Japanese history.