Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kintaro - Feminine?

In the past month I've noticed two pretty young ladies sporting Kintaro tattoos. Does that strike anyone else as rather odd?
Kintaro, a semi-mythical character supposedly based on a real fellow by the name of Sakata Kintoki, is the quintessential Japanese masculine figure. He his known for his great strength, and his legendary exploits in battles alongside Minamoto no Yorimitsu. In Japan, it is a common custom to decorate a young boy's room with images of Kintaro, in the hopes they will one day be a strong young man.
I cannot deny that perhaps there is a certain "cuteness" to Kintaro. The Kintaro image, especially in a childlike rendering, denotes a certain gentleness. It is this combination of strength and kindness which drew me to the imagary.
Mapping mythological figures across cultures is always difficult, and I'm not a mythologist by a long shot. But the first distinctly American figure that comes to mind when trying to find a cross-cultural analogy to Kintaro is Paul Bunyan. As you may know, Paul Bunyan is a mythological lumberjack who entered American folklore in the mid to late 19th century.
From Wikipedia:
One legend says that at the mouth of the river in the Two Mountains area near Saint-Eustache, Quebec, loggers stormed into battle against the British, among them a fierce and bearded giant named Paul Bonjean, monikered as "Bonyenne"....Defender of the people, the popular hero's legends moved up-river from shanty ("chantier" in French) to shanty.
Later iterations of this story coupled Paul Bunyan with his trusty giant blue ox sidekick, Babe, a similarity to Kintaro and his fondness for playing with animals. Legends of Bunyan often feature outlandish feats of childhood strength, much like Kintaro's most famous tale in which he wrestles a giant koi. In this picture Paul is carrying an axe - another symbol long associated with Kintaro.
So again I ask - given the cultural significance, is Kintaro an appropriate image from a woman, or has this bit of Japanese folklore been taken out of it's context? I'm leaning towards the later, but I'm always open to other explanations and opinions.

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