Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Nakamura Shikan IV from the series Matches for Six Selected Flowers : Begonia, c 1863.
The feature of this great actor print by Kunisada is the tattoo that he skilfully shows beneath his shirt. The print is of an actor playing one of the popular gangster characters called otokodate. They were tough, Robin Hood characters who carried concealed weapons such as iron fighting fans designed and painted to look like bamboo and cloth. This character carries a pipe or Kiseru. Kiseru is a Japanese smoking pipe traditionally used for smoking kizami, a finely shredded tobacco product resembling hair. Typically the mouth piece and bowl are made from metal, with a tubular shaft of wood or bamboo stretching in between. Because each kiseru is basically a rod with metal ends, extremely long kiseru could be carried as weapons, especially by the gangster-like kabukimono samurai of Edo period Japan or their rough cousins the otokodate. Tobacco was known in Japan since the 1570’s. Further references to tobacco appear in Japanese archives beginning in 1609. Accounts of tobacco use and cultivation are also documented in the paintings from the Keicho period (1596–1615). At first, the new custom of tobacco smoking was mainly practiced by the kabukimono. Tobacco became a symbol of this infamous group, which resulted in the shogunate’s subsequent efforts to restrict smoking. Regardless, smoking and leaf tobacco cultivation expanded, causing the shogunate to ban production and sales of tobacco completely. The Edo shogunate attempted about forty bans on the sale and use of tobacco during the seventeenth century, though the prohibitions failed to prevent the expansion of smoking. During the Edo period weapons were frequently used as objects to flaunt one’s financial status. Since commoners were prohibited to carry sharper weapons, an elaborate kiseru carried slung from the waist often served the purpose.