Japan’s Female Ninjas: the Kunoichi

By Susan Spann

The Hollywood ninja dresses in black, appears from the shadows, and strikes without warning. He’s also usually male.

In reality, not all ninjas were male, and they didn’t all lurk in shadows.

14F20 Courtesans

Female ninjas, called kunoichi, were just as deadly as their male counterparts–and just as hard to spot in a crowd. Kunoichi trained in combat, disguise, and stealth, just as male ninjas (called shinobi) did, though the kunoichi’s missions and function differed from those of a male shinobi in several important ways.


Men of the samurai class dominated Japanese government and society during the medieval era. Samurai rarely trusted strangers, but often made exceptions for women, either because of their beauty or because the woman filled a “harmless” social role (for example, a maid or entertainer). Kunoichi frequently posed as performers, courtesans, or servants. In these disguises, kunoichi could infiltrate temples, cities, and fortresses, either to gather information or to strike at well-protected targets male assassins sometimes could not reach.

14F20 women at shrine

Shinobi training for both genders focused on utilizing the ninja’s personal strengths to best advantage. In medieval Japan, where women were often prized for beauty rather than skill, a kunoichi’s beauty was one of her most valuable—and deadly—weapons.

But that doesn’t mean the female ninja depended exclusively on her looks. In combat, kunoichi were just as deadly, and as well-trained, as any other shinobi.


Like their male counterparts, kunoichi trained with many different weapons. Most kunoichi could use a sword, though they generally specialized in weapons with a shorter range, like daggers, garrotes, poisons, and specialty items like bladed fans and claw-like finger extensions called neko-te.


Neko-te, in particular, were used almost exclusively by kunoichi. The weapon consists of leather finger sheaths topped with sharpened metal “claws.” The sheaths slipped over the end of the wearer’s fingers, giving the kunoichi a set of lethal, tiger-like claws that measured from one to three inches in length. Many women poisoned the metal claws for added effect.


In some ways, kunoichi inspired more fear than their masculine counterparts because of their ability to mimic different types of women that samurai often regarded as harmless.

14F20 women and man


Samurai guards could watch the roof and patrol the corridors of a warlord’s castle. Lanterns and watchmen on the walls could stop a shinobi from sneaking in unseen. But kunoichi didn’t sneak inside under cover of darkness and they rarely killed their targets right away. A kunoichi took her time, earning the target’s trust and often becoming a part of his household. From that trusted position, she passed information to his enemies or struck when he let his defenses down.

When it came to infiltrating samurai strongholds, the kunoichi’s ability to adopt the role of a mistress or servant had obvious advantages. High-ranking samurai chose retainers from among their relatives and trusted associates, making it harder for male shinobi to reach a position from which he could spy or strike at the target. A woman, on the other hand, needed only to appeal to the target’s natural attractions.


Both male ninjas and kunoichi worked as undercover agents, some so deeply in disguise that they could never return to their former lives. Some assignments were permanent—to spy on a target as long as he lived. Others took the form of suicide missions—to infiltrate and strike the target, even though the shinobi or kunoichi would die in the process.

In most respects, kunoichi  were treated the same as their masculine counterparts, though with tactics, assignments, and weapons suited to their differing strengths. Modern Westerners might not recognize a killer in a courtesan’s dress, but in samurai Japan, a wise man knew that a dagger often lurked in a beautiful woman’s bladed fan.




Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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