Ishikawa Goemon, The Ninja Thief

Ishikawa Goemon played by kabuki actor Arashi Hinasuke ? Utagawa Toyokuni (1863)No ninjitsu school in Japan would openly acknowledge Ishikawa Goemon as one of their students. This is because, Ishikawa Goemon is considered to be the greatest thief in Japanese history. Goemon was probably a Ninja, since many sources claim that he was born in the Iga Province, the home of the Ninjas. Yet, he perverted ninjitsu in the sense that he used the Ninja techniques to steal from others. Other sources claim that he was a samurai born to So Sekei, the chief retainer of a local warlord. He quit being a samurai after the assassination of his father and became a thief in Kyoto.

However, despite being a thief, he was well liked by the common people. Goemon was a sort of Japanese Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Goemon lived in the Edo era, in the 16th Century. The Civil War (Warring States Period) had just ended. This period was characterized by massive differences between the classes of people. Much power and wealth were in the hands of the daimyo (the leader of a province). There was a rich aristocratic class who were powerful landlords. The common people were peasants, condemned to forever work the lands of their masters for a meagre pay. Ishikawa Goemon sought to iron out these differences using his own radical method.

In 1594, Goemon entered the castle of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the regent of the emperor. It is not clear why he did so. Some say to steal; which does not seem to be a good reason because of the risks. Others say that he planned to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who at that time was perceived to be a despot and who oppressed the common people a lot. Still others claim that the aim was to avenge Goemon’s father who had been killed by Hideyoshi (this is the version of the popular plays by the Japanese kabuki).

Whatever the case, Geomon entered the master bedroom of the regent. According to popular legend, there was a mystical incense burner in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s room, which sounded a shrill alarm whenever an intruder comes in. The samurai guards of the regent were quickly roused and caught Goemon in the act. A more logical explanation would be that he tripped over something that raised the alarm…but hey, who are we to challenge history?!!! When caught, Goemon was brought before the regent for interrogation, where he gave the following statement:

“It is you who are the thief, for having stolen the whole country!”

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was furious at this, since it was well known that he had came to power after a series of battles, intrigue and even political assassinations. He ordered that Goemon and his whole family be put to death by boiling in hot oil at the front gate of the Nazenji temple in Kyoto. While Goemon was unable to save the rest of his family, he saved his young son, Gobei, who had been put in the same cauldron as him, by holding him above the boiling oil.