Kintarou, Japan’s Folk Hero

I first learned about Kintarou when a Japanese exchange student stayed at my house in America.  She brought a children’s book for my baby son.  Luckily, I could read hiragana, and I could read it.  Kintarou is a very important part of Japanese culture that people who love Japan need to know about.  People who have watched Japanese anime or read manga, the Japanese comic books, have encountered Kintarou, but they may not really know who he is and how important he really is in Japan. He was a real person, and has become a folk hero in Japan.

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Kintarou was another one of those children raise in the woods like Romulus and Remus of Rome or Mowgli in the Jungle book.  He was an orphan who grew up on Mount Ashigara in the woods.  His mother was running from two opposing samurai groups who were at war, and she died in those woods.  After that, Yama-uba raised him. “Yama” is the Japanese word for “mountain,” and “uba” is the Japanese word for “witch.”

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Kintarou grew up very, very strong!  He could uproot trees with one hand and break tree trunks.  He became friends with all the animals.  Some say he could speak to the animals.  He ran around in the woods completely naked except for a baby’s bib as a child.  Written on the baby’s bib was “gold” in kanji (Chinese characters.).  The first part of his name “Kin” means “gold.” The pictures of him show him to be a big boned, tall, fat chubby baby like a sumo wrestler.

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A samurai was walking through the woods once and encountered him. He was so impressed by his strength, he asked Kintarou to follow him, and Kintarou did.  The name of this samurai was Minatoto no Yorimitsu. He became Minamoto’s retainer.  Minamoto no Yorimitsu lived during the Heian period of Japanese history.

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Yorimitsu took Kintarou to Kyoto.    Kintarou studied martial arts in Kyoto.  If you want to go site seeing in Japan, Kytoto is a really good place to go. Many of the famous sites of Japan are found in Kyoto.  When Kintarou began following Yorimitsu, he changed his name to Sakata no Kintoki.  Sakata no Kintoki was one of Yorimitsu’s “Shintennou,” translated as “four braves.”

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If you go to the food of Mt. Ashigara, there is a Shinto shrine there dedicated to Kintaro.  If you go to the National Theater in Tokyo where they do Bunraku and Kabuki plays, there are plays about Kintaro.  Burnaraku is a traditional type of Japanese puppet plays.  Kabuki is a traditional type of Japanese theater.  Maybe I will blog about traditional Japanese theater another day.  There are also Kintarou dolls that parents display in baby’s rooms hoping the child will be strong and brave like Kintarou. On children’s day, they also display the Kintarou dolls because they use Kintarou as a roll model for the little boys.  There is also a kind of Kintarou candy.

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If you read manga, you are going to find lots of stories about Kintarou. If you watch Japanese anime, you will also find lots of stories about Kintarou.  When foreigners read the Japanese books, play the Japanese games, and watch the Japanese cartoons, they don’t always know the significance of what they are seeing.  If you are an American, when you see Kintarou, just think “The Daniel Boone or the Davy Crockett of Japan.”  If you are European, perhaps you would think “The Odysseus or Agamemnon of Japan.” If you are English, you may think of him as “the King Arthur of Japan.” They had one in the Bible too. His name was Samson.  Kintarou is a very important folk hero in Japan.

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