Did you know Japan had not one, but two Robin Hoods? Yes, these two stole from the rich and gave to the poor, risking their lives to help the common people. They were called Ishikawa Goemon and Nezumi Kozo. They might not have the popularity in the West that Robin Hood enjoys, but they make up for it with awesome ninja skills and bags of rats. And in Japan, they enjoy adaptations and roles even in modern times.
Not much is known about Goemon’s early, pre-thieving days. Some say he was born as Sanada Kuranoshin, while others say his real name was Gorokizu. Most sources say he was born in 1558, during Japan’s “Warring States era”. It’s said that he tried to assassinate Oda Nobunaga, a powerful daimyo, but failed, and became a thief, also supposedly training in ninjitsu.
Later accounts of Goemon upgraded him from simple thief to a Robin Hood figure. Like the English folk hero, Goemon led a band of thieves that stole from the oppressive, rich lords and gave to the poor peasants. Although, unlike Robin Hood’s victories over the Sheriff of Nottingham, Goemon had much less luck with his enemies.
Never quite getting the hang of the whole assassination thing, in 1594, Goemon attempted to kill Oda Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotoma Hideyoshi, but failed, and got the attention of the guards in the process. Goemon wasn’t able to escape this time, and Hideyoshi ordered his family to be put to death, including his young son, Gobei.
Goemon and Gobei were put in a large cauldron and to be boiled alive. In an attempt to save his son, Goemon held him above his head, out of the cauldron. Some accounts say that Gobei was then spared by Hideyoshi, while other accounts don’t end as well. Nowadays, large baths similar to the cauldron that Goemon was boiled in are called “Goemon baths”, which seems like a pretty terrible consolation prize.
Of course, tubs named after his slow, agonizing death aren’t the only thing Goemon influenced. In addition to have many kabuki plays about him, the legendary thief often shows up in modern media, ninja skills intact.
In Popular Culture
Ganbare Goemon is a video game series by Konami which enjoyed modest popularity in the 90s. As the title suggests, Goemon takes the role of main character. He wears kabuki make-up and carries a long Japanese pipe called a kiseru, possibly inspired by the popular kabuki play Kinmon Gosan no Kiri, where Goemon smokes a kiseru in a famous scene. His thieving origins are alluded to by his ability to throw money at foes.
Goemon is also the main character of the 2009 film Goemon. In a slight departure from history, Goemon is saved as a child by Oda Nobunaga and trained to be a ninja. After Nobunaga’s death, Goemon becomes the Robin Hood like thief he is famous for.
Goemon is one of the playable characters in Koei’s Samurai Warriors. In contrast to the smaller, ninja-like Goemon in most other portrayals, Koei’s Goemon is a 6’5” giant. He wields a large club and carries a cannon on his back. Appropriately enough, he falls in love with Okuni, the founder of kabuki.
Nakamura Jirokichi was born in Edo in 1797. He led an unassuming life, working as a laborer and volunteering as a fire fighter. While he may have been a pickpocket as a child, he seemed to leave behind the life of taking things that didn’t belong to him when he became an adult.
Of course, in reality, he just moved on to stealing from the big cheese. At the age of 19, Jirokichi became the rat kid, Nezumi Kozo. The origins of the nickname vary, from having a rat-like appearance, to him carrying a bag of rats to mask the noise when stealing goods. After all, finding rats in your home makes those scurrying sounds much less suspicious.
Unlike Goemon and Robin Hood before him, Nezumi Kozo worked alone. He didn’t have a band of comrades, save for his bag of rats, which seems like a much more one-sided deal.
In 1822, Nezumi Kozo was arrested, marked as a thief, and exile from his town of Edo. In response, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He returned and spent the next nine glorious years continuing his thievery. In 1831, he was again arrested. Unfortunately for Nezumi Kozo, this was before the days of laser tattoo removal, so his tattoo from nine years earlier marked him for death.
At the end of his run, Nezumi Kozo had stolen over 30,000 ryo, but was almost broke at the time of his arrest. Because of this, it’s thought that the money Nezumi Kozo stole was given to the poor. While it’s unsure if this is where the money actually went, Nezumi Kozo was thoughtful enough to get a divorce and sever ties with his family, preventing them from sharing his fate. Perhaps he learned something from Goemon.
Nezumi Kozo was executed by decapitation, so, unlike Goemon, his death didn’t name any common household object. On the other hand, his life of robbery and probable altruism has inspired much in the way of modern media.
In Popular Culture
In the 2012 edition of Downtown’s Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! “No-Laughing punishment game”, the cast travels to the Edo era. Nezumi Kozo appears during a scene to hand out stolen money to the citizens.
The Nintendo series Animal Crossing has a rat character inspired by Nezumi Kozo. He sports the stereotypical Japanese robber headscarf, and lives in a house full of (stolen?) old Japanese furniture. Putting a stereo inside his house causes it to play an enka inspired song.
Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman is a pachinko game turned anime about a man who spends his days doing a variety of odd jobs. At night, he assumes the identity of Nezumi Kozo, and helps steal back people’s stolen goods that were taken by the rich elite.
Despite being executed by the authorities, these folk heroes live on in legend. They may take on bizarre, comedic forms, but they’ll always be remembered as timeless characters. Which beats out the tub prize. That one just seems cruel.