Kunoichi and Spies from the Land of Izumo

In the 1603 CE, Izumo no Okuni, from the land of Izumo, is said to have created the art of Kabuki. But she may also have been a spy…

Born around 1572, Izumo no Okuni (出雲阿国) was a young shrine maiden who at some point creatively began singing and performing new kinds of dances in a dry riverbed of the Kamo River in the capital of Kyoto. She became very popular amongst all the classes and well known throughout many regions. One of the things that she did that really made her stand out was recruit women from the lower classes to perform in her all-female shows. According to author and researcher Paul Varley, in his 2015 book, “Japanese Culture”, Okuni would “gather up the female outcasts and misfits of the region, particularly those involved in prostitution”. She then “gave them direction, taught them acting, dancing and singing skills in order to form her troupe.”

Until becoming famous for her new style of performance that the people called Kabuki, Okuni had grown up as a miko or a “ceremonial dancing shrine maiden” of the Grand Shrine of Izumo. Miko were thought of like shamans but were also trained to perform rituals, ranging from “sacred cleansing” to the Kagura dance meant to entertain the gods.

Okuni travelled the country and performed with her ladies until she retired in 1610 CE when she suddenly disappeared. Some Kabuki historians believe she died in the year 1613 CE at around 41 years old, but there is no evidence to support this. She simply disappears from the public record.

Although Izumo no Okuni was famous and she appears in traditional textbooks, her true origins are unknown and much about her is still unclear. She is said to have been a shrine maiden at the Grand Shrine of Izumo as previously mentioned, but she also has been described as an Onmyodo Shomonji (陰陽道声聞師) , a Taoist performer and fortune teller at the Kōfuku-ji temple, and even the secret daughter of a Buddhist saint of the Jishu sect. 

In general, entertainers of this time period were considered “Kawahara no Mono” (河原), a class of peasantry. But, when Okuni was active and performing, it was a time before the strict social impositions and the separation of the social classes typical of the Tokugawa period. So, depending on her talents and the skills of her ladies they could reach various audiences, even the upper classes. Compared to the women of the Warring States Period, who lived open and relatively free lives, the women of the Tokugawa lived in the shadow of men in a much more strict and regulated society. From the start of the Edo period, very quickly, there were fewer and fewer opportunities and roles for women in Kabuki. Eventually the Tokugawa government banned women from Kabuki completely and only allowed men who have reached middle age to perform.

Izumo no Okuni often appears in stories and historical novels depicting the beginning of the Edo period after the end of the Warring States period. She is not only considered to be Kabuki’s founding ancestor, but there are also other works of literature that depicted her as a shinobi type of spy. In the 1976 edition of “The Hidden Japanese People” by Yamada Munemitsu, (隱れた日本人:山田宗睦) he describes Izumo no Okuni and her ladies as going to “places and scenes that are depicted as places where a ninja would go”. Especially in terms of regions in Izumo where ninjutsu-tsukai (忍術使い) were known to dwell.  

Many ninjutsu enthusiasts are aware of the stories of Takeda Shingen, the famous daimyo from the region of Kai, allegedly using female agents as spies. One such agent, known as Mochizuki Chiyome, the widow of Mochizuki Moritoki who died at the battle of Kawanakajima, is said to have set up an estate in Nezu village in Shinanokuni, where it is believed that she gathered the orphaned and abandoned girls from the towns and villages and trained them to be shrine maidens and spies, eventually sending them to various places throughout the country as nomadic travelling maidens and assigned them to intelligence gathering activities. Since ancient times, the Shinano and Mt. Togakushi areas were a haven for a type of ninja known as “suppa” (素破). The roots of the famous Iga and Koka shinobi or ninja are also in Shinano, as it is the birthplace of the legendary Koka Saburo, who was sent to quell a rebellion by the emperor and later became one of the founding fathers of Iga and Koka Ryu ninjutsu.

So, until Izumo no Okuni became famous for her Kabuki style dancing and singing, some historians believe it is possible that she lived as one of these types of travelling shrine maiden-spies, gathering information.

Another Izumo shinobi clan known as the Ibōrō based out of the San’in region whom I wrote about in a previous blog. But as a refresher, in the battle of Tengyō no Ran they served Taira no Masakado, but as Masakado lost the battle and died the Ibōrō people fled and scattered to various parts of the country. When this happened, most of them fled back to Izumo and the San’in region but the ones that fled to Atago Mountain and Hakuunji Temple on its peak are said to have joined the shinobi of Iga.  Those that carried on at Tsukuba Mountain became known as the Fūma shinobi no mono (風魔忍者). The Fūma ninja served the Hōjō clan during the warring states period and for generations their leader took on the name Fūma Kotarō.

In addition, there was another group of these Ibōrō people that had supported Masakado that hid in the mountains outside of the capital who would come to town and rob people at night and ambush people on the roads for their valuables. At one point they broke into the place that the itinerant monk, Kuya (空也上人), was staying in but the tables turned. Instead of robbing the monk they built grass huts near his place and they willingly became his disciples, learning the ways of the monk and chanting the Nenbutsu. They learned to make an honest living by begging and selling their handmade wooden bowls and teacups. With Kuya’s assistance and connections to the court, he eventually helped the clan get into security jobs at the capital and work as the official imperial “catchers of thieves”.  They came to be well known for their skills at apprehending criminals and were highly solicited by the lords from various parts of Japan.

In Yase, there is a family called the “Yasedōji” (八瀬童子) who were said to be the descendants of a hornless “Oni” or “demon” from Izumo and they served the Emperor based out of Enryakuji Temple. They were also referred to as the Emperor’s “shadow priests” (天皇の影法師) because they worked at the temple as a priest (法師) but also had covert roles as “Onmitsu” (隠密) or secret agents of the Imperial Palace. It seems that the relationship between the Yasedōji and the emperor deepened after the Siege of Mt. Hiei and the burning of Enryakuji Temple by Oda Nobunaga. This is a connection that I feel begs to have further research into. The Yasedōji were also the people, who by tradition, bore the sōkaren or portable ceremonial stand upon which the imperial coffin was placed.

In any case, with this essay I would like to stress that based on the above information, we can see that Izumo was a source for many types of people performing clandestine activities that we would commonly today call ninja or even kunoichi…

Keep an eye out for my upcoming new book this summer!

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Ninpo Ichizoku!

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May 21, 2020

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