If you are from Europe, you almost certainly know the Robin Hood story. The tales of a legendary outlaw who lived in the forest and stole from the rich to give to the poor has become a symbol for one man’s struggle against inequality.
Tellingly, this legend is not unique to England. The Schinderhannes story from Germany, for example, has many of the same elements. Something about a poor person getting revenge on the wealthy by redistributing their wealth appeals to our sense of social justice. After all, wouldn’t we all secretly like to see someone redistribute a billionaire’s wealth amongst some of the starving people of this world?
This unfair difference between the rich and poor was felt in Japan.
Under the Ashikaga Shogunate, Kinki was a tough place for the serfs tolling away under the local daimyo. As seemingly the whole country was fighting, most of the peasants found themselves being used for cannon fodder or giving most of their hard earned produce away to feed the troops.
Unsurprisingly in these tough times, a similar character to Robin Hood called Goemon Ishikawa appeared. Goemon was a real person who entered the realm of legends when he struck a blow for the common folk by giving them the money that he stole from the wealthy.
Of course, no legend would be complete without a bad guy. For Robin Hood, it was the Sheriff of Nottingham, a local landowner who would put poachers to the sword. For Goemon it was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the local shogun. Similar to Robin Hood, the stories have been embellished over the years, but the basic pattern is that the shogun killed one (Or both) of Goemon’s parents and the folk hero vowed revenge. For his revenge, he targeted the people that he believed had money they didn’t deserve, taking money from clerics, merchants and, especially, the local daimyo.
With many of the legends placing him in Kansai, Goemon has become a local hero. He often appears in manga and animations from the area; and shops often bear his name or his image. Similar to a lot of Greek myths, most of the places which appear in his legend are actual places in the Kinki region.
Want to reenact his daring assassination attempt on the shogun who killed his parents? You can visit Fushimi castle and imagine him, blade in hand creeping through the halls. Or, want to see the exact place where the kabuki version of Goemon looks out to admire the view? Visit the Sanmon gates at Nanzenji.
You can even visit his gravestone near Daiunin temple in Kyoto. In Japan, folk stories often have a dark end. After all, when Urashima saved a turtle and went to the magical underwater kingdom, he came back to land a withered old man.
Similarly, while Robin Hood enjoyed thumbing his nose at Sherriff of Nottingham with few consequences, things got a bit more violent for Goemon. After he attempted to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he was captured and sentenced to be boiled alive along with his son.
Never one to let his enemies have the last laugh, he held his son defiantly above his head as he died. The stories vary about whether the child died, but many fantasies exist in which the babe survives and follows in his father’s footsteps (Notably Lupin III).
In that painful execution, the man was able to become a legend. Similar to Robin Hood, the image of a bandit defiant to the last has become a popular one for movies, video games and dramas. That said, Goemon’s biggest legacy is perhaps to be found in the way he changed the Japanese language. As the country often has a dark sense of humour about such things, the large tubs similar to those used for executing Goemon are often referred to as 五右衛門風呂 or ‘Goemon’s bath’ and the term is still used today.
Thankfully, these days you will see them being used for a relaxing bath time with children rather than capital punishment.