Sunday, June 25, 2023

Susan Spann on Girls Can Be Ninjas Too

[A couple of weeks ago we published a Susan Spann classic on Female Samurai Warriors.  This Sunday we offer Susan's take on another generally male dominated job opportunity available to qualified female applicants in ancient Japan: Ninja. –Jeff]


When I say "ninja," most people think of black-clad men who appear from the shadows and strike without warning.

Check out those pajamas...

These medieval assassins remain a popular part of modern culture, appearing in films, in books, and even on coffee mugs...

Trust me. I'm a ninja.
But not all medieval Japanese assassins were male, and not all of them walked in shadow.

The female members of ninja clans were also trained as spies and assassins (the proper word for these women was "kunoichi")-- and they formed an important part of the medieval Japanese spy and assassin networks.  Like their male counterparts, kunoichi trained in combat, stealth, disguise, and assassination. However, their missions and function differed from those of male ninjas (more properly called "shinobi") in several important ways.

Although most people think of ninjas primarily as assassins, they often worked as undercover agents and information-gathering spies. Where a shinobi might pose as a farmer, merchant, or traveling performer, kunoichi often adopted the roles of courtesans, temple maidens, or traveling priestesses. In these disguises, kunoichi infiltrated temples, castles, and fortresses, either to gather information or to strike at well-protected targets male assassins could not reach.

Medieval samurai lived well-defended lives. As a result, assassinations by male shinobi usually required clandestine (and usually nocturnal) missions, a medieval form of “seek and destroy” that gave rise to the black-clad ninja myth which persists to the modern day.

By contrast, a kunoichi could gain her target’s trust until he allowed her intimate access, at which point she could attack—when both his pants and his guard were down. 

In medieval Japan, where women were often prized for beauty rather than skill, a kunoichi’s ability to appear both innocent and harmless was one of her most valuable—and deadly—weapons. However, the female ninja were just as deadly, and as well-trained in weapons and combat skills, as any male shinobi.

Courtesans...or killers?
In some ways, kunoichi inspired more fear than their masculine counterparts because of their ability to mimic women that samurai would normally see as "harmless." Guards could watch the roof and patrol the corridors of a castle. Lanterns and watchmen on the walls could stop an assassin from sneaking in unseen. But kunoichi didn’t sneak around in black pajamas, and they rarely killed their targets right away. A kunoichi took the time to earn the target’s trust, and used that trusted position to gather information...and to strike when he let his defenses down.

Kunoichi weren’t exempt from suicide missions and long-term undercover assignments. They filled an equal, and important, role within the ninja clan, using tactics, assignments, and weapons suited to their unique and particular strengths.

Neko-te (Cats' Claws) - a favored weapon of kunoichi

Unfortunately, the kunoichi hasn't found and maintained the enduring fame of the male ninja assassin. Modern Westerners might not recognize a killer in courtesan’s dress. But now you know, as the samurai did, that not all medieval Japanese women were peaceful flowers. In some cases, claws and daggers lurked behind those lovely fans.

--- Susan Spann


  1. In honor of Susan, here's this very recent story in the NYT about hiking/traveling in Japan:

  2. Thank you EvKa! Ugly link or not, info about hiking in Japan is valuable. I had the enormous privilege of climbing four mountains with Susan. Those who can't make the trip just now can take it without having to pack a bag by reading her book Climb. She had even posted a photo companion on her website:
    Highly, HIGHLY recommended for armchair travelers.