Kintaro: The Legendary Folk Hero

Explore the characters from Japanese folklore in Ukiyo-e Painting from the Meiji period

By Keio University Library

Sakata Kaidomaru (万延元年9月改印 1860 松嶋彫政) by Utagawa YoshitsuyaKeio University Library

A variety of characters, both real and fictional, are depicted in giga cartoons, which appear in the formative days of Japanese manga. Many of these household names will be seen in triptych-form Nishikie colored woodblock prints by Yoshitsuya Utagawa.

Kintaro (Sakata Kaidomaru)

Kintaro is one of the characters most beloved by the Japanese, be they boys or girls, young or old, and regardless of time or place, immortalized as he is from a nursery rhyme with the first bar of “Masakari katsuide” (a battle-axe on his shoulder) through to contemporary television commercials.Kintaro was said to be the childhood name of Kintoki Sakata, who legend
has it was one of Minamoto no Yorimitsu’s Shitenno ("Four Guardian
Kings"), active in the mid-Heisei period.He was raised in the mountains by a Yama-uba ("mountain witch"), and
appears in many works in guises which also include "Kintoki," and
"Kaidomaru," wielding a large battle-axe, accompanied by animals, and
possessed of a vermillion body of Herculean strength.In this Nishikiecolored woodblock print by Yoshitsuya, he is depicted as
Sakata Kaidomaru, playing the kotoro kotoro chasing game in an
uninhibited manner with yokai goblins and animals, under the watchful
eye of the Yama-uba.

Minamoto Yorimitsu in Ashigarayama (文久2年5月改印 1862 彫長) by Utagawa KunihisaKeio University Library

Kintaro (Sakata no Kintoki)

In this Nishikiecolored woodblock print by Kunihisa Utagawa, Kintaro is depicted engaged in a test of strength with Arataro Usui (Sadamitsu Usui), who has assumed a lumberjack’s garb. In recognition of Kintaro’s prowess he will become a retainer for Minamoto no Yorimitsu as one of his Shitenno(“Four Guardian Kings”). Kintaro is again here depicted with a vermillion body. In the frame to the right, Minamoto no Yorimitsu, Watanabe no Tsuna, Urabe no Suetake, and Hirai no Yasumasa are depicted; while in the left-sided frame are a monkey, rabbit, battle-axe, and the Yama-uba, with Mt. Fuji as its backdrop, as in the Nishikie print of Yoshitsuya. Another Nishikie print by Yoshitsuya depicting this test of strength with Usui Sadamitsu is “Yorimitsu wrestles Kaidomaru at Mt. Ashigarayama”.

Warrior on Skull; Kintoki Overpowering a Demon (4/1/1868) by Tsukioka YoshitoshiLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Kintaro and Raijin (The Thunder God)

Yoshitoku Tsukioka’s Wakangoki-zoroi “Valour in China and Japan” sees an appearance by Kintaro. This scene is an impactful full screen composition in which Kintaro subdues Raijin by gripping his horns. Kintaro capturing the Thunder God as a subject for painting can be seen in many works, including those in Kusazoshi picture books after the Horeki period; Ukiyo-e of the Kansei period; and miniature books of the Meiji period. In the Zentaiheiki epic and other works, the Yama-uba describes having woken up in fright at the violent clap of thunder during a dream that a red dragon was making love to her, making her pregnant with Kintoki (Kintaro). Kintaro’s red body, his supernatural powers, and the appearance in depictions of Kintaro with a battle-axe, which was the weapon of the Thunder God, have also led to suggestions that he was the child of the Yama-uba and Raijin, the Thunder God. While the body of Raijin is usually painted in red, he is here painted in green to contrast with Kintaro’s body.

Mt. Kintoki (summit)
This is a mountain on the prefectural divide between Kanagawa and Shizuoka. It has an elevation of 1212 meters, and is associated with the legend of Kintaro. The peak affords panoramic views of Mt. Fuji, which are depicted in Nishikie colored woodblock prints by Yoshitsuya and Kunihisa.

Sakata Kaidomaru (万延元年9月改印 1860 松嶋彫政) by Utagawa YoshitsuyaKeio University Library

Tengu (crow-billed goblin)

A tengu crow-billed goblin heads the chain in the kotoro kotoro (capture a child) children’s game.  This is a legendary creature which wore Yamabushi, the favored apparel of mountain hermits, on their winged bodies, with a peaked bill on their faces resembling a bird. The Yama-uba likely used her divining powers to call forth the goblin to join Kintaro as a playmate.  While threatened with the axe he spreads his arms and legs wide to block Kintaro’s passage. The tengu is depicted with his trusty feather fan, which was said to fly through the air and cause fires, at his waist.

OniDemon (Red Goblin)

An imaginary monster based in Buddhist doctrine and the Way of Ying and Yang. It is said to take humanoid form, have horns growing on its head, be red from head to toe, and make its home in hell. Kintaro punishing or absorbed in play with goblins is a frequent theme for depictions. Here, a red goblin is shown as a playmate freely mingling with a bear, rabbit, monkey, and others.

Kintoki (late 18th-early 19th century) by Artist: Torii KiyonagaSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Kintaro and goblins

This is a Nishikie colored woodblock print by Torii Kiyonaga. Kintaro is depicted having four goblins draw lots. At 40 pieces, a comparable number to those by Utamaro, Kiyonaga is reputed to have the most examples of Ukiyo-e depicting Kintaro. In addition to this piece, Kiyonaga also has works such as “Kintaro Dances the Bear,” in which Kintaro has goblins play the drums and pipes, and “Kintaro and the Little Goblins” where he referees goblins in a sumo grapple.

Kintoki verjaagt een demon (ca. 1815 - ca. 1820) by anoniemRijksmuseum

Kintaro (Kintoki) and goblin

Kintoki (Kintaro) drives out a goblin by scattering beans.  He wears a ceremonial eboshi nobleman’s cap with a large “gold” kanji visible on his pleated hakama. Shown as a rotund figure in childhood, Kintaro is meanwhile here depicted as a dignified, bearded, muscular adult. While nowadays Setsubun (the Harvest Festival) takes place around February 3, under the old calendar it fell around New Year’s, and we can see a Shimenawa, a sacred straw festoon with various auspicious symbols attached to it, typically hung over entrances or Shinto household altars during New Year, in the top right.   Here too the goblin is colored green to contrast with the vermillion of Kintaro’s body.

Sakata Kaidomaru (万延元年9月改印 1860 松嶋彫政) by Utagawa YoshitsuyaKeio University Library

Yama-uba (Mountain Wet Nurse)

The Yama-uba is a youkai spirit of an old woman, who resides in remote mountain areas.  She is said to be tall with long hair, and skin of a near-translucent white, and sometimes also that she has piercing eyes and a mouth which rends her face from ear to ear.  The scenario of a Yama-uba as the mother of Kintaro was popularized by the novel Kinpira Joururi at the start of the Edo period, a time when the subject of the youth of Kintoki (Kintaro) was first taken up. In this Nishikie colored woodblock print, the Yama-uba (Mountain Wet Nurse) is watching over Kintaro with a benign expression, while sewing a kimono with a child’s check pattern, most likely that of Kintaro himself.

山姥と金太郎|Yamauba and Kintoki (ca. 1795) by Kitagawa UtamaroThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Yama-uba and Kintaro (Utamaro)

A Bijinga Ukiyo-e by Kitagawa Utamaro, which depicts the Yama-uba as a young beauty. Utamaro produced numerous examples of Ukiyo-e using Kintaro and his mother the Yama-uba as his theme in the latter part of the Kansei period. Here, Kintaro again has a red body, with the Yama-uba depicted as a fair maiden.  Subsequent depictions and dramatic portrayals of the Yama-uba, who had previously appeared as a wretched old woman or she-demon with horns or similar features, as a young beauty are said to have been greatly influenced by Utamaro.

山姥と金太郎|Yamauba Playing with the Young Kintoki (ca. 1795) by Kitagawa UtamaroThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Yama-uba and Kintaro (Utamaro)

Around fifty drawings themed on Kintaro and his mother the Yama-uba have been attributed to Utamaro, with all said to have been created in the period from late Kansei to the Bunka period. This period coincides with a culture of increasing stringency in the censorship of publications. In 1800 Bijin-okubi-e, prints of the heads and shoulders of beautiful women, were banned. It is said that this ban was circumvented by camouflaging Bjijnga under the guise of images of a mother and child (Kintaro and the Yama-uba), which were not seen as morally suspect.

Sakata Kaidomaru (万延元年9月改印 1860 松嶋彫政) by Utagawa YoshitsuyaKeio University Library


Finally, we have the carp. There are a broad range of Kintaro motifs taken up in this Nishikie print by Yoshitsuya Utagawa. A carp not involved in the kotoro kotoro chasing game is dashed under the body of a waterfall.  But why does the carp appear here? And why is he under the waterfall?

Kintoki in gevecht met een karper (ca. 1800 - ca. 1850) by Hokkei, TotoyaRijksmuseum

Kintaro wrestles the carp

“Kintaro wrestles the carp” by Totoya Hokkei depicts Kintaro grabbing a carp as it climbs a waterfall. The many depictions of the motif of a carp climbing a waterfall are often deployed to symbolize a rising up in the world, from a folktale purporting that a carp that could swim upstream and then leap the falls of the Yellow River at Dragon Gate (Longmen), would be transformed into a dragon.

Kintaro worstelend met karper (1834 - 1838) by Kuniyoshi, UtagawaRijksmuseum

Kintaro wrestles the carp

“Sakata Kaidomaru,” a piece by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, again depicting Kintaro embracing a carp as it climbs a waterfall. The brave Kintaro grasping a giant carp which is attempting to become a dragon by climbing a waterfall is the subject of many works used to celebrate the growth of boys and pray for their worldly success. Today too, Kintaro and the carp is used as a decorative symbol celebrating the growth of males at the Boy’s Festival of May 5.

Sakata Kaidomaru (万延元年9月改印 1860 松嶋彫政) by Utagawa YoshitsuyaKeio University Library


Shimizu,Isao. Chronology of Japanese manga history (Japanese). Rinsen Shoten, 2007, 267p. /

Torii, Fumiko. Birth of Kintaro (Japanese).Bense Shuppan, 2002, 209p. / 

Torii, Fumiko. Mystery of Kintaro (Japanese). Miyabi Shuppan, 2012, 254p. / 

Takasaki, Masahide. The story of the birth of Kintaro (Japanese). Jinbun Shoin, 1937, 415p. /  Zentaiheiki (Japanese). Kokushokankokai, 1988, p325-328.  /  Catalog of Torii Kiyonaga works (Japanese). Chiba City Museum of Art, 2007, 70p. / 

Catalog of Kitagawa Utamaro works (Japanese). Ukiyo-eshuka : Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 3, Utamaro (Japanese). Shogakukan, 1978, p.235-254.

Credits: Story

Ukiyo-e paintings in this exhibition will be included in the "George S.Bonn Collection of Ukiyo-e in the Meiji period", and collection of organizations below.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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