It’s pretty ironic to speak about a renowned ninja, considering that ninjas acted in secret and needed to maintain this secrecy in order to protect themselves. It seems almost counter-intuitive for a ninja to become famous or well known enough that outsiders could piece together information about their life. This is why so little is known about ninja history. Some notable exceptions to this rule of ninja secrecy include Hattori Hanzo, Kazama Fuma Kotaro, and Mochizuki Chiyome.
Chiyome was an even greater outlier than Hanzo, as she is the only recorded female ninja in history, aside from her disciples. She has been described as a spy who operated during the feudal era in Japan — a time where bloodshed was pretty much an everyday occurrence.
The Turmoil in Japan
In addition to a variety of powerful Japanese clans declaring war on each other and Daimyo challenging one another at every turn, there was another conflict waging in the shadows. This conflict was led by spies, assassins, and what you would indeed call ninjas. We know that some ninjas served various samurai lords, some of them more honorable than others, and others acted as mercenaries that served for money.
Who is Mochizuki Chiyome?
Mochizuki Chiyome wasn’t born into any particular ninja clan. Her earliest notable event seems to be marrying Moritoki — a member of the powerful Takeda clan and nephew to the clan leader Takeda Shingen. It was during this time that the Takeda clan was warring with the Uesugi and Tokugawa clans for mainland Japan, known as Honshu.
Takeda Shingen was under threat of assassination quite often, and his own entourage was infiltrated by spies and riddled with traitors. To fight back, he set to work in creating his own network of spies to regain control over his own men and to weed out the rotten ones.
This network of spies was tasked with infiltrating the enemy strongholds to learn secrets and potential battle strategies. While these spies were successful for a time, when Moritoki died on the battlefield in 1561 in a possible skirmish with the Tokugawa clan, Mochizuki Chiyome was approached by Takeda Shingen. Stricken with grief, Chiyome succumbed to Shingen’s emotional manipulation and his offer to help her get revenge.
He recruited her to join his spy network — seeking out information on their enemies and setting her on a path where she would establish the massive network that Takeda Shingen had always envisioned. How much she was guided by Takeda in her efforts is unclear, but many think that he would not have had the time to invest in oversight of her new position.
Mochizuki Chiyome the Spymaster
Chiyome disguised herself as a charitable noblewoman, seeking to do good amongst a land riddled with so much evil. She traveled around Koga and other nearby provinces in search of girls who would join her cause — specifically targeting villages and towns that had been pillaged by marauding samurai, or ronin. She hoped to draw in those who were searching for something to believe in during a time where blood and chaos reigned.
Having established something of a flock, Chiyome took in orphaned girls, promising them safety and sanctuary. She set up her own ninja academy that was disguised as a religious school for underprivileged girls. Those girls who showed certain talents and proficiencies were guided by Chiyome personally towards becoming female ninjas.
Once recruited, she would take them to her Takeda-funded associates where they were granted a formal education in espionage. They were tutored in the art of spying, infiltration, and sabotage — and even taught how to kill men quickly and efficiently.
A Growing Network
Once Mochizuki Chiyome was happy with the progress each girl made, they were sent off into the street to infiltrate settlements controlled by Takeda’s enemies. Some of their most important tools included hiding in plain sight, role-playing in order to fit a certain character, the art of seduction, withstanding torture, record keeping, and information smuggling.
Mochizuki Chiyome’s female ninjas would disguise themselves in a variety of different roles, most notably bar-maids, who were likely to hear secrets after soldiers had a few drinks. Another common role for these spies was as courtesans, who would be privy to more intimate conversations due to the nature of their work.
Others infiltrated the households of Daimyo as servants, where they could move around the enemy lord’s house freely in search of information and secrets. Some even married enemy samurai after pretending to be esteemed noblewomen. Many took on the guise of priestesses and nuns, allowing them to travel between settlements unburdened, as well as giving them the opportunity to hear the confessions of enemies.
Due to the patriarchal society of feudal Japan, women were not considered threats, opening a door for Mochizuki Chiyome’s female ninjas to successfully disrupt operations without ever being suspected. They became so good at what they did that Takeda Shingen began winning more and more battles. At one point, Takeda was even powerful enough to stand up to Nobunaga — defeating the combined forces of Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Mikatagahara. Rumors began to spread through the Uesugi and Tokugawa camps that there were female demons traversing through the land using hexes and black magic.
Where Did Mochizuki Chiyome Go?
By the end of 1573, Takeda Shingen was dead — he allegedly died from either a terminal illness or a long-range marksman who infiltrated his camp. Mochizuki Chiyome had around 300 women working for her as spies and assassins at this time. At the announcement of Takeda Shingen’s death, Chiyome and her band of female ninjas seemed to vanish from the record.
There’s a great deal of speculation as to what fate Mochizuki Chiyome met. Some say she was killed by Tokugawa forces after she tried to avenge Shingen’s death, while others say that the other lords of the Takeda clan dissolved the female ninja clan or had them killed. Another theory is that Chiyome understood that she could no longer operate without Shingen’s guidance and chose to dissolve the clan before retreating to a life of peace.
The End of the Female Ninjas
Some historians also considered that Chiyome had a falling out with Shingen and that she was the one actually responsible for his death. Considering the mystery surrounding his demise, it’s possible that she poisoned or shot him herself. Did Mochizuki Chiyome fade into the shadows to live her life out to the fullest or was she in too deep, struggling against the Tokugawa uprising that would soon dominate Japan? We’ll never know, as a good ninja would not leave vital information to be discovered.
With the age of feudalism and ninjas ended, many of Japan’s traditions evolved and grew. If you’re curious about the development of Japanese history and weapons, explore the Swords of Northshire blog to learn more.
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