Japan History: Ishikawa Goemon

Ishikawa Goemon

Photo credits: data.ukiyo-e.org

Ishikawa Goemon (石川 五右衛門, 1558 – October 8, 1594) was a semi-legendary Japanese outlaw hero who stole gold and other valuables to give to the poor. It is precisely because of this characteristic he is sometimes referred to as the Robin Hood of Japan. There are many stories with him as the protagonist and that describe him as a popular hero who fights against powerful enemies to help the weakest. The authenticity of these stories, however, is not always certain.

In his first appearance in the historical annals, in the 1642 biography of Hideyoshi, Goemon was referred to simply as a thief.

There are many versions of Goemon’s background and accounts of his life. According to one of them, he was born as Sanada Kuranoshin in 1558 to a samurai family in service of the powerful Miyoshi clan in Iga Province. In 1573, when his father, possibly Ishikawa Akashi, was killed by the men of Ashikaga shogunate, the 15-year-old Sanada swore revenge. He then began training the arts of Iga ninjutsu under Momochi Sandayu. Very skilful pupil but of impetuous temperament, he was forced to flee when his master discovered Sanada’s affair with one of his mistresses.

Some other sources state his name as Gorokizu, whose origins were traced to Kawachi Province and he was not a nunekin (runaway ninja). He then moved to Kansai region, where he formed and led a band of thieves and bandits as Ishikawa Goemon. With this gang he robbed the rich feudal lords, merchants and clerics, sharing the loot with the oppressed peasants.

According to another version, which also attributed him a failed attempt on Oda Nobunaga’s life, he was forced to become a robber when the ninja networks were broken up.

What is certain is that Ishikawa Gomen soon became a popular hero especially loved by peasants, and there are numerous anecdotes about his adventures. It is said that once, he had entered a room to perform a theft but was distracted by the smile of a child. Ishikawa began to play with him losing the right moment to pull it off. Another story is about his attempt to assassinate the great general Oda Nobunaga. Once inside Oda’s building, he hid in the attic right above the general’s bedroom. When he went to bed, Ishikawa made a hole in the ceiling right where Oda’s head was. From that hole he lowered a thread aiming at the daimyo’s mouth, dripping poison down it. However, Oda Nobunaga’s sleep was light and, awakened, he managed to foil the attack in time.

Photo credits: wikipedia.org

There are also several conflicting accounts of Goemon’s public execution by boiling in front of the main gate of the Buddhist temple Nanzen-ji in Kyoto.

According to one version, some of Goemon’s followers were eventually caught and forced to reveal the name of their leader.

In another version, Goemon tried to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Some say he did it because he wanted to avenge the death of his wife Otaki and the capture of his son Gobei, but some others say it is because the shogun was a despot. He entered Hideyoshi’s room, in Fushimi Castle, but was caught red-handed by the guards because he knocked a bell off a table. Some legends speak about a magical incense burner that was able to sound the alarm in case of intrusion. He was then captured and sentenced to death, thrown alive in boiling oil into an iron cauldron, along with his younger son.

But if Goemon met his end like this, then the stories diverge on his child’s fate. Some say he was able to save him by holding him above his head, and his son was then forgiven. In other versions the father at first tried to save the son by holding him high above his head but, once realised that it was futile, he plunged him deep into the bottom of the cauldron to kill him as quickly as possible. Then he stood with the body of the boy held high in the air in defiance of his enemies until he eventually succumbed to pain and injuries.

Even the very date of his death is uncertain, as some records say this took place in summer, while another dates it on October 8, in autumn. Before he died, Goemon wrote a famous farewell poem, saying that no matter what, there always shall be thieves.

A tombstone dedicated to him is located in Daiunin temple in Kyoto, while the traditional Japanese bathtub, usually made of iron or wood, is now called goemonburo (Goemon bath)

Kabuki theatre and Popular Culture

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Ishikawa Goemon is the subject of many classic kabuki plays. The only one still in performance today is Kinmon Gosan no Kiri (The Golden Gate and the Paulownia Crest). It is a five-act play written by Namiki Gohei in 1778, in which the most famous act is Sanmon Gosan no Kiri (The Temple Gate and the Paulownia Crest). Here Goemon is first seen sitting on top of the Sanmon gate at Nanzen-ji. He is smoking an oversized silver pipe called a kiseru and exclaims “The spring view is worth a thousand gold pieces, or so they say, but ’tis too little, too little. These eyes of Goemon rate it worth ten thousand!”. Goemon soon learns that his father, a Chinese man named So Sokei, was killed by Mashiba Hisayoshi, and starts to prepare his vengeance.

His character also appears in the famous tale the Forty-seven Ronin, first staged in 1778. In 1992, he appeared in the kabuki series of Japanese postage stamps.

In popular culture, there are generally two ways in which Goemon is portrayed: either as a young, slender ninja or as a powerful bandit.

Goemon is the protagonist of the Konami video games series Ganbare Goemon, as well as a television series based on it. He is the subject of the Shinobi no Mono novels and film series, starring Ichikawa Raizō VIII as Goemon. In the third instalment, Shinobi no Mono, known in English as Goemon Will Never Die, he escapes execution while another man is boiled in his place. Goemon was also a subject of several pre-WWII Japanese films such as Ishikawa Goemon Ichidaiki and Ishikawa Goemon no Hoji.

More recently, in the 2009 film Goemon, he is portrayed by Yōsuke Eguchi and depicted as Nobunaga’s most faithful follower and as associated with Hattori Hanzō.

 

Goemon’s character also appears in many other video games like the series Samurai Warriors, Warriors Orochi,  Blood Warrior, Kessen III, Ninja Master’s: Haō Ninpō Chō, Shall We Date?: Ninja Love, Shogun Warriors, and Throne of Darkness. He is also an Initial Persona in Persona 5 by Yusuke Kitagawa and makes his appearance in the taiga drama Hideyoshi, as well as in the film Roppa no Ôkubo Hikozaemon, and in the manga series Kaze ga Gotoku and Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo.

But perhaps, the most famous of all is Ishikawa Goemon XIII from Lupin III (Rupan Sansei), the direct descendant of the legendary thief created by the mangaka Monkey Punch.