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  • Ink, Banditry and Bushido: Otokodate (Part 2)|Ronin Gallery

Ink, Banditry and Bushido: Otokodate (Part 2)

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 10, 2015 at 2:58:10 PM PDT September 10, 2015 at 2:58:10 PM PDTth, September 10, 2015 at 2:58:10 PM PDT


Adapted from the 14th century Chinese classic, Shuihuzhuan (Stories of the Water Margin), the Suikoden resounded with Edo's emergent middle class. The tale stresses camaraderie and loyalty. Each warrior operates on their own code of justice, often to highly violent ends. From prints to plays, costumes to tattoos, this tale of 108 bandit heroes served an important point of intersection between the vibrant popular arts of the time. While these legendary characters starred on the page and stage, the otokodate brought the rebel warrior to life in the streets.

Kunisada (Toyokuni III), Ichimura Kakyo as Shirataki Sakichi, 1861.

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, a lack of military conflict and a system of alternate attendance saturated the city of Edo with bored, aggressive samurai. Though their services were largely unnecessary, their place in the social hierarchy remained intact, allowing them to terrorize the lower classes without consequence. The otokodate positioned themselves as the anti-samurai, the honorable defender of the weak against the unprovoked cruelty of the privileged.

Like an Edo period Robin Hood, an otokodate fought for justice and the common man—at least in theory. While some of these street warriors were ronin, or rogue samurai without masters, many rose from the Edo's laboring classes. Also known "chivalrous commoners," these street warriors stood in stark opposition to the samurai class and the authority of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Defying the edicts of the Shogunate, the typical otokodate carried a sword, an honor only allowed to samurai, and were heavily tattooed. They became associated with more unconventional weapons. From fans filled outfitted with sharpened metal, to 6ft staffs, to a mastery of combat armed with only a flute, the otokodate were always ready for a fight. While in concept these men were "heroes," this status seems to be more of a reflection of the 19th century imagination than the reality of their actions.

Kunisada (Toyokuni III), Bando Kamezo as Hinotama-kozo Oni Keisuke, 1862.

Largely delinquent gamblers, the otokodate offered their protective services as part of a lucrative and frankly, criminal, racquet in different pockets of Edo. Though they would indeed take on samurai preying on the lower classes, they were also known for unnecessary street brawling. Yet even so, the otokodate remained a "hero" in the public consciousness as an archetype of social unrest.

Immortalized in the Kabuki theater and ukiyo-e prints, the myth of the otokodate as a "bandit hero" lives on. Looking to the triptych below, Kunisada captures Edo's firmly established parallel between the otokodate and the revered Suikoden heroes. By presenting otokodate with the characteristic tattoos of the Suikoden bandits, Kunisada offers these Japanese street warriors as a modern answer to the Chinese classic. Looking to the print on the far right, Kunisada renders actor Ichikawa Ichizo as Nozarashi Gosuke with the characteristic nine-dragon irezumi of Kyumonryu, a common tattoo choice of Edo street knights. In the center, actor Nakamura Fukusuke appears as Asahina Tobei, bearing the floral tattoo of Kaosho Rochishin. On the left, actor Kawarazaki Gonjuro plays the role of Ude no Kisaburo, and while not depicted as a specific hero, he is likened to an ascetic warrior. Not only does Kunisada tie these men to the bandit heroes through the title, Modern Suikoden, but he also adorns these otokodate with the characteristic tattoos worn by the original Suikoden characters, further asserting the two groups' parallel nature.

Kunisada (Toyokuni III), Nozarashi Gosuke, Asahina Tobei and Ude no Kisaburo from Modern Suikoden, 1858.

As in the case of the hikeshi (fireman), the idea of the otokodate is a bit more heroic than their reality. The sheer volume of plays and prints starring various famous otokodate reveals that, despite their generally unsavory nature, these men satisfied a need in Edo. While their adherence to bushido, the warrior's code, was not quite as honorable as that of the Suikoden heroes, the otokodate were among the few to stand up to a biased system and helping to combat, at least some of the time, the samurai class' widespread abuse of social power.


Kaplan, David E., and Alec Dubro. Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld. Berkeley: U of California, 2003. Print.
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.