The Robin Hood Bandits of Old Japan

The Robin Hood Bandits of Old Japan

One of the most fascinating archetypes in Japanese history is the Otokodate.Otokodate literally means one who stands like a man. But it also translates to a man's man, someone that is strong, brave, helps the less fortunate, and stands up for justice. In western culture we can liken these Otokodate to characters like Clint Eastwood, Robin Hood, Billy Jack and even Rambo common people fighting the evil powers that be.

modern day otokodate

The father or godfather of the Otokodate was a man named Chobei of Banzuiin who was active at the beginning of the Edo period, around 1640. Below is a print by Kuniyoshi of Chobei. 

chobei otokodate

The story of Chobei begins when he was 10 years old, he had a fight with another boy and drowned him. He went home and told his father what happened. To protect his son from the vengeance of the boy's parents, his father gave him 20 ounces of silver and a sword and sent him away to Edo. Chobei wanted to become a soldier and by the time he became an adult he was an excellent swordsman. He had a lot of adventures and fights that you can read about in detail at this link

Chobei of Banzuiin

Over time, Chobei became famous for his good deeds and helping the common people. He set up a compound in the Asaksua district of Edo and gathered a group of young men around him as his apprentices, eventually he had 2,000 men. These men he would rent out as soldiers and private security guards.

Kunichika otokodate print tattoo

He was eventually killed by an enemy while he was taking a bath. They heated up the bath house water and locked the door and when he tried to escape they stabbed him with spears and he died. And here are a couple of bloody prints that show that bath house scene. The first by Yoshitoshi from his early and violent series called Stories of Brocades from the East 1867. And one by Adachi Ginko from 1874. 

Yoshitoshi and Adachi Ginko prints


The romantic ideal and popularity of the otokodate increased over time. The typical otokodate carried a sword, but hey also had other exotic weapons like Iron fans, they could even fight with flutes and smoking pipes.

tattooed japanese bandits

You'll also notice that these bandit heroes were heavily tattooed. The Ukiyo-e artists and the Kabuki actors emphasized these gorgeous tattoos which proved extremely popular with the people of that time - and even today these tattoo prints are some of the more expensive to collect.  

One famous Otokodate was Dan-shichi - he killed a man in a fight in 1697 - he's often shown washing himself off with a bucket of water: Here are prints by Kunichika, Kuniyoshi, and Kunisada.



Another infamous otokodate was Kozo Inaba he was a thief that only stole from the wealthy, below is a print of him by Kunichika from a series I'm collecting called good and evil demon mirror. And a print by Kunisada of Kozo Inaba and Mori Kuemon, from his series called Mirror of ten bandits of Japan. Note the iron pipe, that could do some real damage in a fight.


The artist Kunichika was famous for his many prints of actors in otokodate roles. I discovered that in a newspaper interview in 1898, Kunichika mentioned that his father had a tattoo of a kappa on the back of his thigh and this is why he thinks his mother fell in love with him - it was because of his cool otokodate appearance.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Onnadate - the female version of the Otokodate. Here are some prints:  One by Katsukawa Shunsho, one by Kunisada, notice the sword and the flute, and another one by Kunichika.


Despite all the romanticism around the Otokodate it is widely thought that they were the ancestors of todays yakuza. But I think you'll agree that the otokodate are a fascinating piece of Japanese history and a popular subject of the woodblock prints we love.

Yakuza modern day otokodate


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