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Ink, Banditry, and Bushido: Introduction and the Hikeshi (Part 1)

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 3, 2015 at 11:11:03 AM PDT September 3, 2015 at 11:11:03 AM PDTrd, September 3, 2015 at 11:11:03 AM PDT

Toyokuni III, Nakamura Shikan as Kurikara Denshichi, from Modern Suikoden, Woodblock Print, 1861.



By the dawn of the Edo period, the role of the samurai had shifted. As Japan experienced a period of relative calm, these fierce fighters found themselves bored and brimming with pent up aggression. While a strictly stratified social structure remained firmly in place under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the need for the samurai's services was minimal. Exploiting their social standing, these restless warriors often terrorized the classes below them. As these once honorable heroes became vulgar villains, the artisans, laborers and merchants of Edo sought new heroes amongst their own ranks: the hikeshi, or firemen, and the otokodate, or street knights. Though operating in opposition to the samurai, these groups ascribed to the samurai code, or bushido. Stressing obligation, honor and compassion, bushido instilled these popular heroes with a sense righteousness.

Stillfried Studio, "Tattooed Groom," Photograph, 1870s.

Proudly wearing irezumi (traditional Japanese tattoo) bodysuits, these unlikely champions were the most heavily tattooed members of Edo society. From the bathhouses to the streets, tattoos enjoyed incredible visibility during the Edo period. Laborers often worked in very little clothing, showcasing their vibrantly beautiful bodysuits despite Shogunal policy against ink. Whether bearing full body images of the heroes of the Suikoden, a blatantly antigovernment tale, or a hidden vow mark, wearing a tattoo was a fairly safe and enormously popular way to criticize authority, express dissent and proudly declare membership to the "floating world." The tattooed bodysuits of the hikeshi and otokodate signaled such allegiance at a scale worthy of their heroic status.

Yet, it is important to consider the romanticization of these popular renegades. Just as these groups were tied to the term "hero," they were also inextricably linked to "bandit," "ruffian," and often, "drunk." The series Ink, Banditry and Bushido considers these "champions of the common good." From the rambunctious hikeshi, to the libertine otokodate, to the modern yazkuza, this series weighs reality against the prevailing myths of these unconventional heroes.



Built of wood, bamboo, straw and paper, the city of Edo lived in constant fear of fire. As structures were built with little to no space in between, one person's accidental fire could easily set the whole downtown ablaze. This proved to be a frequent and devastating occurrence due to the fact that charcoal was used to heat Japanese homes during the winter. In 1657 alone, over one hundred fires scorched the city. Flames licking against the sky soon became known as the "flowers of Edo."

Toyokuni III, "Celebrating the Framing of the Ichimuraza Theater," Woodblock Print, 1864.

Enter the hikeshi. These volunteer firefighters, called machi-bikeshi in the town districts, would don triple-layer cotton coats. Drenched in water before entering the fire, these jackets provided some protection from the flames. These garments were reversible, bearing the emblem of the particular band of hikeshi on one side and a decorative dragon or other water symbol on the other. The more intricate iteration often echoed the tattooed bodysuit of the wearer. This decorative side of the coat would be displayed only during festivals or to celebrate successfully putting out a fire.

"Fireman's Jacket with Chinese Warrior," Quilted cotton with paste relief, mid-19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As volunteer firefighters, the hikeshi usually doubled as laborers and artisans. In fact, Hiroshige was the son of a fire warden and worked as a firefighter himself before devoting himself to ukiyo-e. In the print above, mallets raised overhead, laborers assemble the framework of the Ichimuraza Theater. Balancing amidst the beams, the men work in various states of undress, revealing the blue and red of their tattooed bodysuits.

Though they were celebrated for their bravery and duty to the town, the hikeshi were certainly not heroes in a traditional sense. While courageous, these men were known as rowdy, course and aggressive. Townspeople regarded them with admiration, but also trepidation. According to legend, in 1805 the hikeshi got into a street fight with a gang of sumo wrestlers at Shinmei Shrine. The clash was so passionate and fierce that it raged for a full day.

Beyond their brashness and banditry, the hikeshi's primary method of stopping fires added to their dangerous persona. Rather than seeking to extinguish the flames, their goal was to isolate the fire, tearing down surrounding structures with large hooks called tobi. This combination of delinquent behavior and destructive methods sometimes rendered the firefighters more destructive than the fires.



Fireman's Jacket with Chinese Warrior. Mid-19th Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Kitamura, Takahiro. Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in the Japanese Tattoo. Amsterdam: KIT Pub., 2007. Print.
Okazaki, Manami. Wabori: Traditional Japanese Tattoo. Hong Kong: Kingyo, 2013. Print.