Edited image from the Tokyo National Museum of the actor Nakazō Nakamura playing Goemon Ishikawa (or, in Japanese style, Ishikawa Goemon), a legendary ninja

Ninja Warrior Ishikawa Goemon: Charitable Hero or Violent Outlaw?

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Ishikawa Goemon was a legendary Japanese outlaw and folk hero who lived during the 16th century. This outlaw has sometimes been compared to Robin Hood, as he stole from the rich to give to the poor. In fact, Goemon is often considered to be the greatest thief in Japanese history. Like Robin Hood, there are different versions of Goemon’s story, and the tales of his exploits have been adapted as kabuki plays. Today, he is a well-known figure in popular culture, appearing in such media as video games, anime series and films.

Son of a Samurai Vows to Avenge His Father’s Death

Ishikawa Goemon is believed to have been born around the middle of the 16th century. During that time, Japan was under the rule of the Ashikaga Shogunate. According to some versions of the story, Goemon was the son of a samurai, and was from the area of Kouchi, in the present day Osaka prefecture. Other versions state that Goemon’s place of birth was the Iga Province, a region famous for its ninjas. Goemon is said to have lost his parents when he was a teenager. According to one version, Goemon’s father was a samurai by the name of Ishikawa Akashi. When Akashi was assassinated by men of the Ashikaga Shogunate, the son vowed to avenge his father’s death. Thus, Goemon quit being a samurai, and began to lead the life of a thief.

The actor Bandō Mitsugorō III playing the role of Ishikawa Goemon in the drama w: Sanmon Gosan no Kiri, which was staged in March 1820 at the Nakamura-za. Image of an 1820 woodblock print.

The actor Bandō Mitsugorō III playing the role of Ishikawa Goemon in the drama w: Sanmon Gosan no Kiri, which was staged in March 1820 at the Nakamura-za. Image of an 1820 woodblock print. ( Public domain )

A Skilled but Violent Ninja

Goemon is traditionally regarded to have been a student of Momochi Sandayu, one of the founders of the Iga School of ninjutsu. Although Goemon was a skilled ninja, he had a terrible attitude. For instance, he had a violent temper, and he lived by his own rules. In addition, Goemon had an affair with his master’s wife, and then fled with her from Iga, after stealing some gold coins from his master. In some versions, the woman would later be killed by Goemon, as she was being an obstacle during one of his escapes.

A Selfish or a Charitable Act

Goemon began his professional career as a thief in the city of Kyoto. A band of thieves was organised by Goemon, and together, they began to ravage the city. These thefts were conducted at night, whilst during the day, the thieves pretended to be merchants, and carefully selected their targets. These were usually the residences of wealthy daimyo. Goemon and his men would also scatter some of the objects they stole amongst the people, perhaps to cause hindrance to their pursuers. This action would later (during the Edo Period) be turned into the romantic notion that Goemon and his band of thieves would steal from the rich and give to the poor. This transformed Goemon into a hero, and ensured his popularity in Japanese culture.

Ishikawa Goemon seizes the stick he is beaten by his wife Oritsu

Ishikawa Goemon seizes the stick he is beaten by his wife Oritsu. ( Public domain ).

The Downfall of Goemon

There are two versions of how the great thief was finally captured by the authorities. In the first version, some of Goemon’s followers were eventually caught. Under torture, these men revealed the name of their leader, thus leading to Goemon’s arrest. In the second version, Goemon made an attempt to break into the residence of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the most powerful man in Japan at that time. It is unclear as to why Goemon decided to embark on this extremely risky enterprise. Some say that he wanted to steal from Hideyoshi, whilst others suggest that he wanted to assassinate him.

In any case, Goemon failed in his attempt. According to a popular legend, Hideyoshi possessed a magical incense burner that would sound the alarm should an intruder enter his room. As a result of this alarm, Hideyoshi’s guards managed to capture Goemon. Hideyoshi sentenced Goemon and his entire family to death. They were to be publicly executed at the front gate of the Nazenji Temple in Kyoto by being placed in cauldrons of boiling oil. Goemon was placed in a cauldron with his young son, whom he held above the oil. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the boy survived.

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