At first glance, a metal kiseru measuring 57 cms (22.5 inches) looks like a novelty item — a bragging pipe, akin to an 11-inch Super Coloso cigar. Pick it up, however, and the weight of 675 grammes — a whopping pound and a half of metal — does not seem like something the average set of teeth would want to deal with on a daily basis. Seeing my puzzled look, the vendor explained it was a buyōkiseru, as he brandished it with the controlled grace of a trained martial artist.
Extra long kiseru can be seen as the props of woodblock print beauties, the slender pipes echoing the bijin’s elongated features and the coiling smoke reflecting the dreamy languor of the moment. But kiseru as weapons were new to me.
Serge Mol’s comprehensive book Classic Weaponry of Japan  is one of the very few available sources of further information. In the section titled Buyōkiseru, Mol records that a heavy pipe could be used as a defensive weapon in much the same way as a naeshi (metal truncheon) or tessen (metal fan). As such they were visually unremarkable and an ideal disguised weapon. Such pipes are also referred to as kenka kiseru – or brawling pipes. Although sometimes of solid metal, they were typically made of sturdy bamboo with a heavy metal mouth-piece and bowl, and measured 30-50cms. Their use was quite common among kabukimono and machi yakko. I digress a little here – the machi yakko were town strongmen who evolved in groups to resist the casual violence and attacks perpetrated by 17th century kabukimono. The kabukimono comprised younger sons of samurai who would not inherit and masterless ronin. They dressed flamboyantly, even in European women’s clothing and lived dissolute lives, robbing and killing hapless victims for bravado. The machi yakko were just as capable of violence but saw themselves as protectors of the ordinary man and were the early groups that were to evolve into today’s yakuza. Even today yakuza consider themselves to hold a protective role in society and notably are always the first to deliver aid packages to disaster areas such as Kobe and Fukushima.
Kiseru made entirely of metal would mostly have been used by the samurai class and were generally about 45.5cm in length. Normally a samurai would be expected to wear his two swords, but on some occasions – such as during visits to the pleasure quarters – he was required to leave them at the gatehouse. Indeed, it would be in such a place that a drunken fight over amorous liaisons might quite well break out. A smoking pipe would not only be unremarkable, but also no warrior would wish to spoil his precious blade by using it in a common brawl. With training, the balance would make it a deadly weapon using either a thrust or a blow. Mol (op.cit.) records that a volume of Kiraku Ryū, a manual of jujitsu tactics, includes secret fighting techniques for the buyōkiseru that can only be understood by the initiated. Several sources also report that the pipe was sometimes fitted with a tsuba to protect the hand in combat. Ratti and Westbrook’s Secrets of the Samurai has a line drawing of a pipe being used to parry a sword blow. 
In decorative art form, these fighting pipes appear as accoutrements of ‘Robin Hood’ characters seen in Kabuki plays, who are further popularised in woodblock prints. One of these characters is Ishikawa Goemon (1558-1594). Images of Goemon most typically show him holding a large pipe of twisted rope form. Many stories recount his heroic deeds, but Goemon finally came to a dramatic end. Arrested for plotting to kill Hideyoshi, he was put to death in a vat of boiling oil in front of the gates of the Nazenji temple, together with his son. Ukiyo-e images show him holding the infant aloft as he endured the ravages of his torture. Some versions of his story say that his son was reprieved, others that when Goemon accepted he could no longer protect his son, he plunged him into the oil to shorten his suffering, before surrendering himself to his fate.
A second pipe-wielding character was Jiraiya, from the classic tale Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari (Heroic Tales of Jiraiya), first recoded in 1806, with subsequent 19th century versions by various authors. Jiraiya was a shape-shifter and could transform himself into a toad at will. His love was Tsunade, who in turn was possessed of slug magic. His mortal enemy was a one-time follower, Yashagoro (Orochimaru), who could transform into a snake. The three combined into the sansukumi, the deadly trio who must live in fear of each other. Jiraiya was of noble descent, but lived as a robber, in the same “Robin Hood” vein as Goemon. He has become a popular manga figure because of his shape-shifting skills and fighting prowess.
In this leaf from a triptych, Ichikawa Danjuro VII appears as Jiraiya, holding a long kiseru by his side. The print is probably intended to celebrate the Kabuki play that premiered in 1852 at Kawarazakiza.
- Mol, Serge, Classical Weaponry of Japan: Special Weapons and Tactics of the Martial Arts, Kodansha, 2003
- Ratti, Oscar and Westbrook, Adele, Secrets of the Samurai, A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan, Tuttle 1973, p. 243