Kintarō (金太郎?, 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.
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.