Kunoichi or female ninja are shrouded in mystery. Historians know very little about these women including what their profession exactly involved, what kinds of techniques they used or which specific individuals actually worked within this profession. However, of the little information that is available, it is known that Mochizuki Chiyome, a Japanese noblewoman who was a (believed) descendant of Kōga ninja and lived in the 16th century, founded the very first all-female ninja school and ran an intelligence ring.
The 16th century of Japan was marked by the introduction of Christianity and firearms to Japan, and the century-long battle of civil wars, better known as the sengoku-jidai, between the daimyos (feudal lords). The sengoku-jidai was of particular import during this time period, and of the several daimyos who were vying for control over Japan, Takeda Shingen was one of the most prominent.
Takeda was a man who was known for engaging in unconventional warfare, and he, unlike many men of his time, saw value in women and believed that women made ideal spies/messengers as they had access to places that men did not and were often overlooked. When Takeda’s nephew Mochizuki Nobumasa, the samurai warlord of Mochizuki Castle, died in 1561 in the Battle of Kawanakajima, Takeda decided to approach his nephew’s wife Mochizuki Chiyome, and he asked her to secretly recruit and train girls to be intelligence operatives. Mochizuki agreed to take up his task, and she opened a secret training grounds (which others would come to believe was a center that helped women) in the village of Nazu, in Chiisa-gun of Shinshu (present-day Nagano).
Mochizuki recruited several different kinds of girls for her school. Most often though, Mochizuki recruited girls who were prostitutes, widows and/or had been orphaned or abandoned, and she trained her girls in several different arts.
Some of the arts that were taught to Mochizuki’s students were religion, sexuality and martial arts. Of these subjects, religion was one of the most important as the miko (shrine maidens) of that time period functioned as shamans, and they (the mikos) freely wandered the countryside unchaperoned. A miko was thus the perfect disguise for kunoichi as no one questioned why a lone miko was on her own nor would people suspect her of being a spy, and this disguise was so initially popular with Mochizuki’s operatives (they later disguised themselves as actresses, prostitutes and geisha) that her girls are now known as the aruki miko or “walking maidens.”
Besides the fact that Mochizuki founded the first kunoichi school, not much else is really known about Mochizuki or her operatives. For example, no one knows when or how Mochizuki died nor is it known what happened to the aruki miko (though it is guessed that the aruki miko lived short lives and were met by a brutal end). In fact, the very existence of the aruki miko was so secretive that it wasn’t until years after Takeda’s death (which occurred in 1573 under mysterious circumstances) that anyone even heard of the kunoichi. This, of course, is very fitting considering Mochizuki and the aruki miko’s occupation.
Mochizuki and the aruki miko worked a trade that required the upmost secrecy, and they were so good at their jobs that 500 years later historians still know next to nothing about them. This is a feat that Mochizuki and the aruki miko would most likely be proud of so I can only say cheers to the mysterious Mochizuki Chiyome and the aruki miko, some of the hardest working, least-known women in history!