Makiwarinari kawari kabuto (axe‑shaped helmet), Early to mid Edo period, 17th–18th century, ©The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Photo: Brad Flowers.

Makiwarinari kawari kabuto (axe‑shaped helmet), Early to mid Edo period, 17th–18th century, ©The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Photo: Brad Flowers.

This impressive helmet in black lacquered iron is shaped as the head of an axe, a symbol of power and strength. The end of the axe handle appears on the top of the helmet bowl; three large notches visible on each side of the axe blade give the helmet a more metal-like appearance. Fukurin decorations in gilded bronze edge the iron visor. The crest holder in the front, or oharaidate, also of gilded bronze, is made to support a frontal crest or possibly a horn-shaped ornament. The iron neck guard is made of five flat plates covered with black lacquered textured leather and constructed with blue braiding. The fukigaeshi, turned-back deflectors, at either side of the visor bear the heraldic crests of the Inaba family in gold lacquer. 

Ukiyo-e print of a young Kintarō battling a giant carp, by Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). 

Ukiyo-e print of a young Kintarō battling a giant carp, by Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). 

The signature on this helmet is interesting on two levels. First, it bears the name of the patron, Kōno Seitsū. Additionally, it states that the helmet is, in fact, shaped as an axe. There are two words for “axe” in the Japanese language: masakari for the war axe, and makiwari for the wood-chopping tool. By using the civilian word in his signature, the smith may have been making some sort of reference to the figure of Kintoki. A popular figure in a Japanese folk tale, forest-dwelling Kintoki is a small child who possesses abnormal strength and performs remarkable feats with his giant axe. In artistic representations, the axe is always shown to be of equal proportion to the mischievous child himself.

Kintoki, born Kintarō, was phenomenally strong, able to smash rocks into pieces, uproot trees, and bend trunks like twigs. He was raised in the forests of Mount Kintoki, and befriended the animals that lived there. 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 Kintoki’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 who was impressed by Kintoki’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.

A shrine dedicated to the folk hero lies at the foot of Mount Kintoki in the Hakone area near Tokyo. Nearby is a giant boulder that was supposedly chopped in half by the boy hero himself.

Visit The Samurai Collection in the HARWOOD District Tuesday through Sunday with free admission. For more information, visit samuraicollection.org. 

 

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