Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Kintarō, the Golden Boy

"Kintaro and Carp in a Waterfall," ca. 1820 by Japanese artist Totoya Hokkei.

There are all kinds of stories as to how Kintarō was born, from being born in the forest after his mother (a princess) escaped fighting between his father and uncle, to one story where his mother is Yama-uba, a mountain crone, impregnated by a clap of lightning sent by a red dragon. He was said to be extremely strong even as a very small child – where he ran around naked, except for a bib around his neck with the kanji for “gold.”  He was said to be very close to animals.  They did his bidding, let him ride them, and possibly even taught him their language.  From the time he was a small child he was fighting monsters and helping local workers.

When Kintarō grew up, he met samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu, who was very impressed by his strength, and so made him a personal retainer.  Kintarō was going by the name Sakata no Kintoki at this time, after Mt. Kintoki where he was raised.  Kintarō trained in Kyoto, learning martial arts under Yorimitsu, and eventually became the leader of Yorimitsu’s Shitennō or “four braves.”  Eventually he brought his mother to Kyoto as well.

Today in Japan Kintarō is a very popular figure, with his face on art, manga, and even candy.  (Actually, the candy’s been around for centuries).  If you’re interested in Kintarō, there is an anime called Golden Boy that is based on the legend.

Kintarō (?, often translated as “Golden Boy”) is a folk hero from Japanese folklore. A child of superhuman strength, he was raised by a mountain hag on Mount Ashigara. He became friendly with the animals of the mountain, and later, after catching Shutendouji, the terror of the region around Mount Ooe, he became a loyal follower of Minamoto no Yorimitsu under the new name Sakata Kintoki (坂田公時?). He is a popular figure in noh and kabuki drama, and it is a custom to put up a Kintarō doll on Boy’s Day in the hope that boys will become equally brave and strong.

Kintarō is supposedly based on a real man, named Sakata Kintoki, who lived during the Heian period and probably came from what is now the city of Minami-ashigara. He served as a retainer for the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu and became well known for his abilities as a warrior. As with many larger-than-life individuals, his legend has grown with time.

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[edit] Legend

Several competing stories tell of Kintarō’s childhood. In one, he was raised by his mother, Princess Yaegiri, daughter of a wealthy man named Shiman-chōja, in the village of Jizodo, near Mt. Kintoki. In a competing legend, his mother gave birth to him in what is now Sakata. She was forced to flee, however, due to fighting between her husband, a samurai named Sakata, and his uncle. She finally settled in the forests of Mt. Kintoki to raise her son. Alternatively, Kintarō’s real mother left the child in the wilds or died and left him an orphan, and he was raised by the mountain witch Yama-uba (one tale says Kintarō’s mother raised him in the wilds, but due to her haggard appearance, she came to be called Yama-uba). In the most fanciful version of the tale, Yama-uba was Kintarō’s mother, impregnated by a clap of thunder sent from a red dragon of Mt. Ashigara.

The legends agree that even as a toddler, Kintarō was active and indefatigable, plump and ruddy, wearing only a bib with the kanji for “gold” (金) on it. His only other accoutrement was a hatchet (ono and masakari). He was bossy to other children (or there simply were no other children in the forest), so his friends were mainly the animals of Mt. Kintoki and Mt. Ashigara. He was also phenomenally strong, able to smash rocks into pieces, uproot trees, and bend trunks like twigs. His animal friends served him as messengers and mounts, and some legends say that he even learned to speak their language. Several tales tell of Kintarō’s adventures, fighting monsters and demons, beating bears in sumo wrestling, and helping the local woodcutters fell trees.

As an adult, Kintarō changed his name to Sakata no Kintoki. He met the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu as he passed through the area around Mt. Kintoki. Yorimitsu was impressed by Kintarō’s enormous strength, so he took him as one of his personal retainers to live with him in Kyoto. Kintoki studied martial arts there and eventually became the chief of Yorimitsu’s Shitennō (“four braves”), renowned for his strength and martial prowess. He eventually went back for his mother and brought her to Kyoto as well.

[edit] Kintarō in modern Japan

Kintarō is an extremely popular figure in Japan, and his image adorns everything from statues to storybooks, anime, manga to action figures. For example, the anime Golden Boy stars a character with the same name. Kintarō as an image is characterized with a Masakari ax, a Haragake Japanese-style apron and sometimes a tame bear.

Kintarō candy has been around since the Edo period; no matter how the cylinder-shaped candy is cut, Kintarō’s face appears inside. Japanese tradition is to decorate the room of a newborn baby boy with Kintarō dolls on Children’s Day (May 5) so that the child will grow up to be strong like the Golden Boy. A shrine dedicated to the folk hero lies at the foot of Mt. Kintoki in the Hakone area near Tokyo. Nearby is a giant boulder that was supposedly chopped in half by the boy hero himself.

The name of the main character of Gintama, Sakata Gintoki, is based on Kintarō.

In the anime series, Otogi Zoshi Kintaro is one of the main characters.

The Imagin Kintaros from the tokusatsu series Kamen Rider Den-O is based on Kintarō, emulating the bear and axe elements.

In the video game Otogi 2 developed by From Software, Kintoki wields a large axe as his main weapon, known as the ‘Crimson Axe’.

Kintarō appears as an alien character who rides a flying bear and wields a small (but large for his size) axe in the animated television series Urusei Yatsura.[1]

In the anime and manga series The Prince of Tennis, a character by the name of Tōyama Kintarō is the youngest regular member of the Shitenhoji Middle School tennis team. He is named after Kintarō, and shares his namesake’s amazing superhuman strength.

In the series YuYu Hakusho Makintaro of team Uraotogi (Dark Tournament) is loosely based on Kintaro, though quickly defeated by Hiei.

In the series One Piece, the character called Sentoumaru has a design based on Kintaro (he wears the same clothes and wields a giant battle axe). Even his signature attacks is called Ashigara Dokkoi.

In the Power Instinct video game series, Kintaro appears as a playable character as Kintaro Kokuin. He uses his animal friends, such as a bear and a koi fish, as well as his axe, to attack the opponent, and is capable of transforming into a dog-like superhero named “Poochy”.

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About Lisa Asanuma

Lisa is a professional freelance writer and editor, along with a bookbinder and knitting obsessee. Lisa has a passion for YA literature (inside her passion for literature in general) and is currently working on her first novel. View all posts by Lisa Asanuma

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