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Mochizuki Chiyome and the Tradition of Female Ninjas

If you’re a fan of Japanese obstacle-course game shows, you’ve probably already run into Sasuke and its all-female spinoff, Kunoichi. The U.S. adaptation of Sasuke, titled American Ninja Warrior, sends contestants through a challenging obstacle course meant to show off the sorts of things a fictional ninja might do, like climbing parallel walls with no grappling equipment, hopping around on treetops, and so forth.

It can be pretty entertaining, and this week gymnast Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to complete the course—a significant achievement considering that she’s about five feet tall, weighs about 100 pounds, and navigates obstacles clearly designed for six-foot-tall weightlifters. The video of her improvising her way through the oversized course is going viral, and it’s fascinating to watch (though if you find the carnival-barker style of U.S. sports announcing as annoying as I do, you’ll probably want to mute the video two minutes in, and that’s fine):

In the general sense of the word, ninjas were simply spies and assassins—the medieval Japanese equivalent to the KGB, more or less—and many of them were undoubtably women. We will never know who the vast majority were (if you’re a famous covert operative, you’re doing it wrong), but the most well-documented leader of kunoichi (female ninjas) was Mochizuki Chiyome (born ca. 1540, date of death uncertain), who was tasked by Takeda Shingen to organize a network of hundreds of female spies throughout Japan to convey secret messages, provide intel, and (probably) commit the occasional assassination. The specifics aren’t clear because, again, these were covert ops; unclear specifics are kind of the point.

In any case, it’s unlikely that many 16th- or 17th-century ninjas—male or female—possessed the gymnastic ability of Catanzaro, as even among the most formally trained ninjas of the Sengoku period relatively little attention was paid to gymnastics as such. Surviving ninjutsu manuals, such as the Shoninki, tend to place emphasis on stealth, camouflage, disguise, competent use of grappling hooks to scale walls, and—above that—deception and manipulation. And with the exception of two specific clans within a very small window of history, the vast majority of ninjas did not receive formal training. Against that backdrop, it’s easy to imagine centuries of brave Japanese women who were brilliant spies and deadly assassins—their deeds untold and unrecorded, just as they’d intended.