It's not like Japan invented the TV, right? But they made them smaller and so thin that you can now slip one under the toilet door while it's showing all the messed-up scenes from the original The Witches to literally scare the crap out of your dad. It's like that with Robin Hood. Japan wasn't the first country to come up with a folktale about an outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but when they created their own version of it, they made sure to make it ten times better than anything England ever churned out. Then, to prove it wasn't a fluke, they did it again, giving us two crazy awesome Japanese Robin Hoods. These are their stories ...

Ishikawa Goemon

1. His Origin Is Basically "Batman on Steroids"

There are more retellings of the story of Ishikawa Goemon (1558 – 1594) than the number of dick diseases the Merry Men collectively must have had, though most are about as bloody. In most versions, Goemon was born to a high-ish ranking samurai family and lost his parents at 15 when they fell out of favor with the ruling government and were killed. Fleeing his home, he sought to learn the art of ninjutsu from legendary ninja master Sandayu Momochi. His training was apparently going well until, that is, he started practicing the art of disappearing his penis inside Sandayu's mistress' vagina. It's actually kind of refreshing that even in the midst of a revenge-fueled superhero training, Goemon still found the time to take a break and relax. It's called self-care, sweeties.

Unfortunately, his master did not see it that way and expelled Goemon, who also stole Sandayu's prized sword on his way out. And judging by how Goemon is depicted in most media, he probably took the sword off the wall in plain view of his master and walked out the door while maintaining eye contact with him. See, although Goemon is sometimes described as a sleek ninja figure, most sources portray him as an absolute unit, a towering, hulking giant with an afro to boot. We're just going to assume that there's already an anime out there where Goemon pulls out various ninja implements like shuriken etc. out of his hairdo. There just has to be. Anyway, after going freelance, Goemon started robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but it's the way he did it that's made him a total legend.

2. Ishikawa Goemon Straight Up Had Magic Powers

Robin Hood's legend is about 700 years old, and in all that time, the most the character ever did was become a slightly worse version of Hawkeye. Now let's look at Japan.

History is like 95% sure that Ishikawa Goemon was a real person but, being the massive nerd that it is, history also reminds everyone that, at most, Goemon was a leader of a group of thieves and burglars who may have once or twice thrown money behind them as a distraction while running from the authorities. This most likely evolved over time into the legend of a noble outlaw who shared the spoils of his thieving with the peasants, instead of the much more realistic version of him and his men spending it all at local brothels. But screw reality. Reality blows. Reality killed all of our childhood dogs instead of letting them live on that nice farm upstate. Which is why Japan decided not to be burdened with reality when building up the legend of Ishikawa Goemon.

First of all, he can fly. Yup. He can just float in the air on a cloud of his own awesomeness. It's how he was able to get into so many well-guarded rich-guy mansions. What else? Oh, nothing, just little things like being able to teleport magically from one place to another in a puff of smoke (remember, ninja). Then again, why would he need to teleport when he could also turn invisible? Edo (old-timey Tokyo) probably started the whole magic bit, attributing nearly every crime committed against the rich and powerful to Goemon. Essentially, whenever someone who never had sleep for dinner as much as slipped in their own homes, the authorities would immediately charge Goemon with aggravated secret floor waxing. With time, that really revved up people's imagination, and they started immortalizing Goemon's superhuman exploits in stage plays, etc. Well, actually, what really got them going was how Goemon died.

3. Goemon's Death Was Super Gory

In between stealthily distributing wealth like a Soviet Batman (wait, that's actually a thing?), Goemon's favorite hobby was trying to assassinate Japan's leaders. The legend goes that he tried to kill the warlord Oda Nobunaga by hiding in his attic and lowering a thread into his mouth so that he could drip poison down it. He failed, and when Toyotomi Hideyoshi became the top dog in Japan, Goemon tried to assassinate him because he was nothing if not consistent. Unfortunately, he was so consistent that he failed in his task yet again, was caught, and was sentenced to death… by being boiled alive.

Making this even more gruesome, his young son was also to be killed because Goemon has sufficiently proven to Hideyoshi what happens when you kill someone's parents and leave them to stew in their own anger for a few years. There are various accounts of the execution itself. In some, the boiling Goemon holds his son above his head so long that it impresses the officials, and they spare the child's life. 

Japanese History Has Two Robin Hood Figures and They’re Both Crazy Awesome | Goemon execution painting
Toyokuni Ichiyosai
"The "AAAIIIIIEEEE!' part really spoke to me."

In others, he holds him above his head for as long as he can before plunging him deep down, so he dies as fast as possible. In his memory, a type of one-person cauldron bath that's heated from below is now called a "goemonburo" (Goemon bath). About as classy as naming a type of guillotine with a bigger head opening to accommodate people with massive 18th-century wigs after Marie Antoinette.

Nezumi Kozo

1. Nezumi More Than Earned His Name

The second Japanese Robin Hood was born Nakamura Jirokichi (1797 – 1831), with "Nezumi Kozo" being a nickname literally meaning "Rat Boy." Nezumi was a burglar who liked to enter the homes of the wealthy through the roof and creep around like a rat. That's one of the theories as to the origin of his moniker. The other is that he always brought a bag of rats with him, releasing them into the house as he robbed it blind. That way, if someone woke up in the night and heard scuttling, they'd see a passing rat, make a personal note to fire the maid in the morning, and go back to sleep. When they woke up, they noticed that someone stole their valuable painting of a couple with genitalia for faces.

Nezumi was all about that sneakiness. By day, he was a day laborer and volunteer firefighter (meaning that he got to wear one of their boss jackets), but at night, he'd transform into one of Edo's finest burglars. Stories go that while casing a joint, he'd spend two or three days hidden inside the residence's garden, just watching everyone and seeing how the house operated. This probably helped him avoid robbing houses where the rich guy's mistress was part of Edo's infamous Urine Gangs, lest he woke up in the middle of the night drenched in piss just as Nezumi was stealing his picture of a penis monster with vaginas for eyes (we're seriously asking: WTF Japan?)

2. He Definitely Gave to the Poor But Maybe Not How You're Picturing It

Because Nezumi lived pretty close to modern times when people wrote stuff down (instead of forgetting everything and making shit up later like the cool pre-19th century people), he never really acquired a lot of weird legends about being able to control rats with his mind or secretly being a bunch of rats wearing a human skin suit. Wait, hang on, we have to go pitch an idea to Tim Burton. Dang. He's already using that one for his retelling of the Pied Piper story.

Anyway, because ~200 years wasn't that long ago, we actually do have a bunch of reliable information about Nezumi, and the gist of it is that he was a total pimp. Nezumi famously spent almost all of his money the minute he got it on food, drink, and women (he had several mistresses and common-law wives.) But he was also a happy drunk who would buy people clothes if they were in need or lend them money without asking for it back later, or treat his buddies to prostitutes down at the red-light district. The guy enjoyed spreading the cash around because, well, he definitely had a lot of it. During his 15-year-long burglary spree, he reportedly stole as much as 30,000 ryo. Now, the value of ryo changed A LOT depending on the time and region, but at the very least, Nezumi stole the modern equivalent of $120,000. At most, it could be as high as $40 million.

3. Nezumi Kozo: A Bad Guy but Not a Bad Guy

Despite stealing so much money, Nezumi was broke when he died. This led to rumors that he had hidden away a lot of his treasure, but the more probable explanation is that he spent it all on good times because he honestly did not give a shit. And we have the historical records to prove it. When he was finally caught, he simply admitted to all his crimes, ending with "My time has definitely come." He was beheaded shortly after his arrest.

Much like with Ishikawa Goemon, whose son was sentenced to death with him, Nezumi's execution wasn't necessarily the end of it. The authorities could have gone after Nezumi's mistresses and wives, accusing them of aiding him in his burglaries. But the man thought about it. According to some sources, before he died. Nezumi sent out "declarations of separation" to all of his lovers, which was like proof that they weren't cohabitating anymore. Even though, in many cases, you could probably find Nezumi's old sock and underwear in these women's houses if you just looked for even a minute. But with these letters, the women had nothing to fear from the authorities, and that's one of the reasons why Nezumi Kozo captured the hearts of the people of Edo, who've immortalized him in plays, books, and stories that continue to this day.

Also, 19th-century Edo was really bad when it came to income inequality, so the fact that Nezumi stole from the rich definitely helped to make him a folk hero in the eyes of many. It's also why we don't know the entire scope of his criminal activity, as many houses feared for their reputation and never reported Nezumi's burglary or, say, the theft of their painting where a raccoon dog attacks people with his giant testicles. Also, we really need to stage an intervention for Japan.

Follow Cezary on Twitter.

Top Image: Toyokuni Utagawa I, Toyokuni Utagawa III

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