Medieval Japan’s Real-Life Robin Hood Met A Devastating End

A rogue outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Sound familiar? Surprisingly, Robin Hood isn’t the only folk hero who matches this description. Over in Japan, similar stories are told about Ishikawa Goemon, a gifted samurai and an ally to the oppressed. But just like those of his British counterpart, Goemon’s origins have been called into question over the years. And to this day, historians still struggle to separate the fact from the fiction.

Ishikawa Goemon

Was Goemon really a champion of the common people, stealing from the obscenely rich warlords who wielded power in feudal Japan? Or was he little more than a common thief, using charity as a front to abscond with his ill-gotten gains? While there are many legends surrounding the man dubbed the Japanese Robin Hood, the truth about his life is hard to come by. But all of the stories agree on one thing: he met with a horrific end.

Sanada Kuranoshin

Most versions of the legend seem to agree that Goemon wasn’t given that name from birth. So what were his real origins? According to one account, he was actually Sanada Kuranoshin, born in Iga Province in 1558 into a family of samurai warriors. And from a young age, he was beholden to the Miyoshi clan, a powerful family descended from the 9th-century ruler Emperor Seiwa. But when he was just a teenager, his father was killed by members of the Ashikaga shogunate.

A quest for vengeance

Established in the 14th century, the Ashikaga shogunate was a feudal government that ruled Japan for almost 250 years. But they were also known for doling out violent justice to those who stood in their way. And according to legend, 15-year-old Sanada swore to avenge his father’s death. So that he might be strong enough to strike when the opportunity arose, he began studying the ancient art of ninjutsu. And he learned from one of the best — Momochi Sandayu, one of the originators of the Iga School.

Illicit affair

According to this version of events, Sanada became one of Momochi’s favorite students and was eventually adopted by the ninjutsu master. But although he excelled at training, his behavior soon revealed a volatile temper. And to make matters worse, he began an affair with the wife of his guardian. When the illicit liaison was discovered, he was forced to flee, taking his lover along for the ride. But not before he stole a sword said to be bestowed with magical powers.