Dorobo, or the Japanese Burglar


Leonie Gilmour

The scene, a cottage set in a pine forest. The time, midnight. The only sound, the wind in the pines. The sea is near, near enough to make us fancy the waves breaking at our door, but it is always the waves of the green forest that we hear. Lonely? No, deliciously cozy in our pine nest. Some nights I have been awakened by the intimate call of an owl, or the screech of a train shooting between the hills, leaving its echo trailing in the mists of the forest. Only the nearness of the track, and the thought of track-walkers, ever disturbed our feeling of security. And that very little. We certainly didn’t mind the track. By it came all our adventures, just as the yellow primroses had come with the railroad.

Well, on the night I write of I had awakened suddenly. Yet I heard no wailing echo of a train’s shriek, no intimate call of a neighborly owl. I listened. Waves of the forest running on endlessly. The breathing of my two children, one on either side, was imperceptible. There was a tiny “bean lamp” on the tansu, which gave a glimmer of light in the room. I could see the wooden panels of the ceiling above me. I felt the comfort of the Japanese mats under me, like terra firma, so much more satisfactory than the uncertainties of spring bed. My children were by me, as I have said. We were warm, cozy, safe. Yet I was strangely awake, and listening. I put out a hand to touch the baby. All right. And still I listened. And then—I heard—a shoji sliding right above my head.

“That tiresome maid,” I thought. “Hasn’t she gone to bed? What does she want?”

I turned my head upward. The shoji, only a yard from my head, was half open and I perceived that there was a figure—a man’s figure—in the aperture. I believe my first thought was that my maid had a sweetheart who had mistaken his way in getting out of the house. I remember that I leaped to my feet and stood facing the intruder in my night dress, and that I uttered a shrill and indignant “O Tami!” meaning to call the girl to account. At the very instant of giving the cry I realized that it was a “dorobo” (burglar) who stood before me. His make-up was perfect. Exactly that of a stage robber. He was all in dusky brown. His kimono knee-length and with a sort of fringed apron in front. Brown leggings wound around his lower legs. Barefooted—the big toes showing white. Across his face and about his head there was drawn a brown scarf with fringed ends, and I felt that his dark eyes were glowing in the crack between the folds of the scarf. This was all the impression of an instant, for at the very instant of my cry he had drawn a knife—a murderous-looking thing—and was making a sort of sawing motion with it, holding it close down beside his thigh.

The blade of the knife was three or four inches wide and over a foot in length. Even at that moment it struck me as ridiculous. The thing was overdone. Probably a farmer had rigged himself up in this garb to frighten me. No doubt the blade was of wood covered with tinfoil. But, anyway, it was prudent to take no chances. Whether it was a professional burglar or peasant on a marauding expedition, he was threatening me—and the children—as I saw from his pointing the blade downward at the children sleeping on the floor, while he kept up his sawing motion. I didn’t repeat my cry, as he evidently meant me to keep quiet.

The whole thing was rather absurd. But I waited, smiling a little inwardly at my perfect calm, to see what would be his next move. He spoke in husky whisper. “O Kane!” (money—honorable money!) making round with his forefinger and thumb, so that I should understand, “O Kane arimasen” (money have not), I answered. My self-possession made me smirk conceitedly. We never know our own courage until we are actually confronted with danger. I daresay I would have shown the same sangfroid in conversing with a ghost. But then that ridiculous knife was such a palpable giveaway I could hardly be expected to feel any thrills.

“Misite!” (Look) was his next utterance, pointing to the chest of drawers that stood against the wall. The little bean lamp was spluttering there.

I was beginning to feel impatient. To be sure, there was a little money in the top drawer—about a yen and a half. But then I didn’t see why I should give it to him. If I turned aside he would have me at an advantage. Certainly he wouldn’t be satisfied with such a paltry bit of money. I thought best to keep facing him as one does growling dog.

All the while I was wondering what I should do about it. After as it seemed some minutes of racking my brains I had an idea. I said slowly in Japanese: “All my money in Nitta-ya’s bank.”

My words spoken in very clear, though probably not quite correct, Japanese, seemed to make an impression on him, for he stopped the sawing motion of his knife and stood stock still. I felt encouraged to repeat the same remark.


And then I blinked to see the place where he had been was empty. He was gone, without a sound, like the witches in “Macbeth.” I stood looking in wonder. Then I noticed that one of the sliding wooden doors which shut in the veranda was open about a foot. That way he had gone. He was surely gone. And then I ran to rouse my maid.

“O Tami! O Tami! O Tami!,” I cried. My voice was strangely hoarse and far away. If I hadn’t been right beside her it might not have roused her. She jumped up. “Okusan! [Madam.] What is the matter?”

My voice came in gasps, now loud, now low, like gusts of wind in a chimney. “O Tami! Dorobo! “ And I dragged her to the veranda, pointing to the open door. She was very excited.

“Where? There? There!” She ran to the door to look out, then ran back in fright.

I kept on in my strangely gusty voice. “Shut—everything.”

Both at once we ran to shut and bolt the door. Then all about the house to see that everything was shut. There was a barred window in my room and on account of the heat I had left the outer wooden shutter open. This I now tried to close. But my hand, strangely, was trembling so I found it impossible to clutch the shutter, and O Tami came to my assistance.

“Okusan is cold!” she cried.

“N-n-n-n-n-no. Ye-ye-ye-ye-ye-es-s-s-s-s.” My teeth were chattering in such an absurd way it was impossible to speak, so I had to leave her to do the talking as well as the work.

At last we were safely locked in again and went to sleep. In the morning we notified the police. A policeman, not in uniform as it happened (perhaps he was on a detective job that day), wearing a flowing silken hakama (the divided skirt of the Japanese man that makes him look so much like a woman), came and sat on my cushions, while my maid served him with tea. He brought out a little notebook and leisurely took notes, while from time to time he sipped his tiny cup. He laughed with me as I described the burglar’s knife. “So long—and so wide.” He agreed that it was probably a toy knife, and the burglar a farmer dressed up to play the part. “This would serve his purpose,” he said, drawing a slender sword from its scabbard somewhere among the folds of his skirt.

“Weren’t you frightened?” he asked.

“How could I be frightened of a man with such a ridiculous theatrical kind of a rig and a monstrous bugaboo sword such as they use to frighten little boys?”

“Foreign ladies are very brave.” he said admiringly, and went off, promising to let us know if he got track of the “dorobo.”

A week later the policeman stopped in passing to tell me that my burglar had been caught.

“What it a real burglar?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. A particularly bad professional burglar. We’ve been trying to catch him for a year. He went down the railroad track and committed several burglaries. We were hot on his trail but didn’t catch up with him till we got to Totsuka, where we caught him trying to get into a temple through the roof. He’s in prison now.”

“But are you sure it was my burglar?”

“Yes, he told about visiting the house of a foreign lady near the railroad track.” There was a quiver of the policeman’s nostril as he said this, and I wondered if the burglar’s description of the foreign lady had been in any way funny.

“And the knife? Was it real?”

“Undoubtedly. It was by that knife we recognized him. Most burglars don’t use a butcher’s knife. But he did, you know.”

“Did he ever use it?”

“He used it. But he will not use it again. Good morning, madam.”

And the moral of this story is that some burglars are open to reason. You have only to keep perfectly cool and have your wits about you, and talk to the burglar as to a rational human being. Your Japanese burglar, now, is an intelligent and even chivalrous sort of person. He will not waste his metal on a defenseless but provident woman who keeps all her money in the bank. Another thing I may remark is that your Japanese is not much of a bluffer. When he shows a knife it is apt to be of cold steel.