Kintarō: Folk Hero and Golden Boy

Kintarō, also known as the Golden Boy, is one of Japan’s popular folk heroes. He has been featured in many anime and manga such as One Piece and Otogi Zoshi. In many ways, Kintarō was like Japan’s Tarzan, having been raised in the wild and battling different sorts of weird creatures. The story of Kintarō is said to come from the desire of parents to have their young boys grow up with strength and courage, just like the folk hero.

Story of Kintarō

There are many variations of the Kintarō folk tale. This is one of them.

This story goes that Kintarō was the child of  a beautiful maiden named Princess Yaegiri and a samurai named Sakata. To escape the fighting between his dad and his uncle, Kintarō’s mother decided to go into hiding in the mountains of Kintoki. Depending on the source of the tale, Kintarō’s mother would either leave Kintarō on the mountain to be raised by a hag named Yama-uba, or become Yama-uba herself by gaining a gaunt appearance. Kintarō would grow to be energetic and extremely strong for his age—so much so that even as a child, he could cut trees as fast as skilled woodcutters, break rocks, and uproot trees.

Yama-uba and Kintarō woodblock print. (ukiyo-e)

Living in the wild, Kintarō had little human contact (one explanation was that he was bossy to other children), but he gained the friendship of various animals in the forest. These animals included a bear, a deer, a monkey, and a hare. He would claim to be the strongest out of the five of them. They became his messengers and gave him a ride from time to time. Stories depict him defeating monsters and wrestling bears during his time in the mountains.

 Moon of Kintoki’s mountain (Kintokiyama no tsuki). Tsukioka Yoshitoshi


Kintarō then encountered a general posing as a woodcutter named Sadamitsu. Sadimitsu had been sent by his lord to recruit people with potential for his army. Sadamitsu enlisted Kintarō into the army as a vassal for Minamoto-no-Raiko (Yorimitsu Minamoto in some versions). Kintarō gained power, wealth, and prominence as a samurai, coming to be known as Sakata no Kintoki. Two of his notable achievements include becoming one of the Four Braves (legendary retainers of the land) and defeating an ogre that lived in Mt Ooe.  Kintarō then built a comfortable home for his mother in the city where she could live out her days in comfort.

Kintarō Wrestling with a Black Bear. woodblock print by Torii Kiyomasu