Risuko’s World — What Were Kunoichi?

Risuko’s World

by David Kudler
Read the opening chapters of Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale

Did kunoichi really exist?

That is a very interesting question, and one that can be answered in a number of ways.

Yes. No. Maybe.

For myself, the answer is perhaps, and if not, they should have.

Some years ago, I was leafing through an old magazine of my daughters’ and came across an article titled “Killer Accessories.”2 Very briefly, it told the story of a Japanese noblewoman, a war widow by the name of Mochizuki Chiyome, who had trained a group of women called kunoichi during the period in Japanese history known as Sengoku — the Civil War era that lasted from 1467 to 1603 (by the Western calendar).

The article described how, under the pretense of running a school for shrine maidens, Lady Chiyome built a small army of “dangerous flowers.” It showed an assortment of the kunoichi’s specialized weapons — fans with knife blades, fake fingernails with poisoned tips, reinforced parasols that could be used as shields — and finally said that Lady Chiyome’s army had faded into obscurity after the death of their patron, Takeda Shingen.3

Well, I thought, there’s a story that has to be written! And I started to do research, and I started to think about how to bring this story — and the amazing, awful period during which it took place — to life.

Serious academics have not had much to say on the subject of the kunoichi. In popular culture — in anime, manga and video games — the kunoichi appear all over the place, most often as female ninja, robed in black, disappearing at will, and possessed of the supernatural skills of the Shadow Warriors of folktales.

That image didn’t seem to have anything to do with Chiyome-sama‘s school. It seemed far less compelling — to me — than the idea of real girls learning real skills to fight in a real war.

The image of a girl up at the top of a tree came to me — I wasn’t sure why she was there, or even who she was, but I was very interested in finding out. I started writing, I read books, I watched movies, I wrote some more….

And at a certain point, not quite halfway through the book, I got stuck. I knew where I the story needed to end up, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. I spent months thinking and rethinking the plot, but couldn’t see how to move forward. Other projects demanded my attention, and Risuko and her story were quietly put aside.

But never forgotten.

Nearly four years later, I had just finished a major book project, found myself watching an old samurai movie that my father had loved, and for whatever reason, I suddenly knew to how to get Risuko from where she was to where she needed to be (back up a tree, of course!), and I began writing again.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Sengoku Era, and I’m not alone. There’s a reason that there are so many movies and books set during this era. It occupies a similar spot in the imagination to the American Old West — a time when times were horrifically hard, but anything was possible. Before that time, Japan had been run more or less smoothly by a series of warlords (shōgun) since the twelfth century (the time of the original Lady Murasaki, author of what has been called the world’s first true novel, The Tale of Genji). The warlord ruled the nation on behalf of the emperor, often from the imperial city, Kyōto, but sometimes from other cities, such as Kamakura.

Now, a teacher of mine liked to point out that good marriages make bad stories. I think you could say that peaceful times make boring history — not a bad thing for the people living through them, but much less interesting for those of us looking back. It’s a good thing, then, for people like me that in the late fifteenth century, a series of natural disasters (earthquakes, famine, etc.) combined with weak leadership by the Ashikaga shōguns to lead the lords of Japan’s provinces to rebel.

For the next a hundred years and more — starting at around the same time as the English Wars of the Roses and ending just before the establishment of the Jamestown colony in Virginia — groups of lords fought to unite the nation behind one or another of their number. Whenever one of the alliances seemed poised to bring the empire under its control, one or more of the allies would split off, unite with lords from the opposition, and the cycle of violence would start again. A map of the country would indeed have looked very much like Lady Chiyome’s: a war of swirling colors marking shifting allegiances.

During the time in which this book is set, an alliance led by Oda Nobunga had come close to achieving unification of the country. Takeda Shingen and Matsudaira Motayasu (who would later be known by quite a different name) were among his chief  allies. We have records of huge battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers. We know there were spies and assassins.

Doesn’t it seem likely that at least some of those involved were female?

Today, most countries have women serving proudly in their military. History is full of stories of women who have served — and served well — as soldiers, either disguised as men, or, rarely, in the open. When I was young, I loved the ancient Greek tales of the legendary Amazons, the fiercest of the foes, but not all of the stories are myths. Boudica, a British queen, led troops against the Roman legions, while Joan of Arc led a French army against the English during the Hundred Years War. During the American Civil War, we have records of hundreds of women soldiers serving (and dying) in the armies of both the Union and the Confederacy.4 Wars affected women as much as men; it makes sense that women would seek to participate, to help determine their outcome. In most cultures, however, women were seen as weaker and gentler; they were forbidden from dressing as men (on pain of death in many countries — Japan among them), and they were forbidden from fighting openly.

It makes perfect sense a widow like Mochizuki Chiyome would have sought a way to help end the chaos and bloodshed that had  gripped Japan for over a century by using the tools that she had at hand. It makes sense that she would see in the girls orphaned by a century of war the opportunity to build an army unlike any that had marched across Japan’s blood-soaked hills and fields.

There’s another reason that this period fascinates me and so many others: Japanese society had been (and would later once more be) remarkably rigid, binding each individual to the traditional role of his or her class, clan and gender. After a hundred years of war and upheaval, men and women were no longer as tightly bound; they could change their circumstances in life through their own abilities. Though duty and family honor remained the most powerful forces in Japanese society, the daughter of a shamed samurai, for example, might indeed act to regain that honor.

So, to return to the opening question: Where the kunoichi real?

Again, I answer: Yes. No. Maybe.

But whether there truly was an army of women spies, bodyguards and assassins dressed as shrine maidens wandering across Sengoku-era Japan, the conditions for such a force existed. And that’s the world in which Risuko’s tale unfolds.

Read the opening chapters of Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale

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