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The term is thought to derive from the names of characters that resemble the three strokes in the kanji character for woman (女 onna?); said in the order they are written: ku (く) - no (ノ) - ichi (一). Early literary quotes include Enshū Senkuzuke Narabi Nihyaku In (遠舟千句附并百韵?) (1680) as well as Maekuzukeshū (前句付集?) (1716), which specifically associates the word with the kanji 女 supporting the etymology of being overpowered. The "くノ一" writing requires the use of one character from each Japanese character set — first hiragana, then katakana, then kanji. While hiragana and kanji can exist in the same word, katakana generally cannot appear in conjunction with the others. There are exceptions to this, for example in "ゴミ箱" and "消しゴム".
Female ninja are mentioned in Bansenshukai, a 17th century Japanese book compiling the knowledge of the clans in the Iga and Kōga regions devoted to the training of ninja. According to this document, the primary function of female ninja was simple espionage, finding legitimate service positions in the households of enemies, to accumulate knowledge by gaining trust or overhearing conversations.
One historically accepted example of this is Mochizuki Chiyome, the 16th century wife of a Samurai warlord, who was tasked by her uncle with recruiting women to create an underground network of female espionage agents.
Chiyome recruited several young women who were recently orphaned, prostitutes or victims of the civil wars of the Sengoku period. She also recruited girls who were either lost or abandoned. Many people believed that she was helping these women, and giving them an opportunity to start up a new life. But in reality, they were trained to become highly efficient information gatherers and verifiers, seductresses, messengers and when necessary, assassins. The girls were taught all the skills of a miko (Shinto shrine maiden or a wandering female shaman), which allowed them to travel virtually anywhere without suspicion, receiving religious education to complete their disguise. Over time, Chiyome's kunoichi learned to effectively use more disguises such as actresses, prostitutes or geisha. This allowed them to move freely within villages, towns, castles and temples, and get closer to their targets. Eventually, Chiyome and her kunoichi had set up an extensive network of some 200-300 agents that served the Takeda clan and Shingen was always informed of all activities, putting him one step ahead of his opponents at all times until his mysterious death in 1573.
- Hayes, Stephen K. (1991). Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art. Tuttle Publishing. p. 16. ISBN 0804816565.
- Morris, Glenn (1996). Shadow Strategies of an American Ninja Master. Frog. p. 70. ISBN 1883319293.
- Full text of Bansenshukai
- Thomas A. Green, Martial Arts of the World (2001), p. 671
- Columbus Ninjutsu Club - Kunoichi: The Female Ninja