Momotarō: The Story of the Unification Against Injustice

The plight of the unseen and unheard masses sometimes grows to be so large, so as to stir up an uproar and wave of discontent, one of which that consists of the righteous and good conquering the evils and perils of the world.  In the Japanese folktale story Momotarō, which arose in Japan as early as the Edo Period (1603-1867), a righteous and honorable character by the name of Momotarō (桃太郎 Momotarou , “Peach Boy”) conquers the evil Oni (鬼, “Demon,” “Ogres”) of Oni Island. Momotarō conquers such Oni through the help of several animal companions who he awards millet dumplings to. The food of the traditional millet dumplings essentially unites Momotarō and the animals that he meets along the way, giving rise to the victory over the Oni which comes up in all forms of the Momotarō reiteration. Momotarō, being an upright and versatile character, is able to withstand the test of time through its popularity as a figure of unification against evil.

The Name Momotarō itself is derived from the Japanese word of “momo,” meaning “peach tree” and “tarō” meaning “big boy;” which is also a name that is often traditionally given to the first son of a Japanese family. Across both literature and text, the symbol of the peach which gives rise to Momotarō, represents much more than the fruit itself. The peach fruit aspect of the folktale embodies ideals of prosperity and longevity, which Japan very much seeks for itself. With the peach’s large proportion that of which has never been seen before, as told in the Iwaya Sazanami’s 1938 publication of Momotarō, the peach can be seen as a reflection of the type of nation that Japan sought to be displayed as. On a historical standpoint, Japan was growing as an industrial nation and military power in both the 18th and 19th century, paralleling the enormous growth of the peach. The peach while symbolizing a long life, also referred to the youthful generation of Japan, making it an ideal tool to target children as well. Through Momotarō, Japanese children grow up with values of bravery, selflessness for one’s country, and resolve in dire situations.


The Birth of Momotarō from the Peach

Within the Momotarō tales, not only does the food of the peach appear, but also the cuisine of Japanese millet dumplings which Momotarō utilizes to essentially seal the companionship with the animals (typically of which consists of the dog, monkey, and pheasant). The millet dumpling, also known as the kibi dango (団子), is a delicious and simple Japanese snack which serves to provide for comfort and nourishment to Momotarō and his comrades in their battle against the evil Oni. In Mitsuyo Seo’s film, Momotarō’s Sea Eagle, the millet dumpling is handed out to the enlisted soldiers under Momotarō. In such scene, the millet dumpling provides sustenance and assurance to the animals before they set off to battle the Oni, who coincidently resemble American cartoon characters such as Bluto, Popeye, and Betty Boop. The Iwaya Sazanami 1938 textual treatment of Momotarō, in contrast to the film, portrays only half of the millet dumpling being given to the animals. In such way, a hierarchical system is established through the millet dumpling; a system of which consists of the god-sent Momotarō above his animal comrades. This subtle aspect incorporated into the textual version of Momotarō reflects the traditionalist view of Japan in hierarchy to the rest of the world (where Japan is above other countries). The millet dumpling, native to only Japan, across all platforms of Momotarō, prepare the animal soldiers for a battle for the basic rights of the villagers who suffer harassment and devastation from the demons, who have frequently pillaged the local villages.


In further analyzing Iwaya Sazanami’s 1938 publication of Momotarō, ironic aspects revolving around the millet dumpling appear. The millet dumping is incorporated into the quarrel between the animals and significantly defuses the situation. In such scenario, the millet dumpling serves to end fighting and quarrel through its appeal as delicious nourishment. However, through the unity and camaraderie of the animals caused by the millet dumplings, war against the Oni is essentially made possible. In this case, the millet dumpling serves as a mechanism in initiating and sustaining war, rather than defusing war. Through ironic incitation and destruction, greater peace is achieved for the people of Momotarō, paralleling what many countries seek with war, including Japan. The simple millet dumpling of simple ingredients is made out to be not so simple with its utilization throughout the Momotarō renditions within Japan.


In the traditional folktale version of Momotarō such as in Iwaya Sazanami and the National Diet Library Newsletter publications, The Peach Boy is portrayed as a righteous and virtuous character sent from the heavens, worthy of much respect and worthy of being followed after by the various animals of the forest. More recent displays of Momotarō, such as in  Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotarō Sea Eagle, establish a standpoint where Momotarō is a Japanese citizen in the Navy. In such sense, Seo alludes to the idea that Japan as a country is worthy of respect from all others, and is on a level and standard close to that of the gods. Seo transgresses the boundary between man and god, giving rise to a distinction between Japan and other foreign countries. Japan with its rising as a political power and growing militaristic agenda benefitted greatly from the numerous effects of the steadfast figure of Momotarō in film.

Initially, the folktale was used as a sort of children’s story so as to instill righteous values and character upon young Japanese children, but with the progression of time Momotarō came to represent many platforms and fulfilled several agendas, some of which included war propaganda and human rights campaigns. In the period both preceding and during World War II, Momotarō would be the popular choice as a type of central figure in militaristic and nationalistic propaganda. Momotarō propaganda such as with Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotarō Sea Eagle was created in hopes of instilling the “Japanese Spirit” into the Japanese populous, so as to push the war effort in Japan’s favor against demons such as the Americans. Just as in the animation where the various cute animals unite to fight off the Oni, eventually defeating the demons, Japan too sought for a Japanese unification amongst its citizens in the war effort against America.

Even after World War II, Momotarō would still be used as a figure head in times of crisis such as with the discovery of the Minimata Disease in 1956 in Minimata City of the Kuramoto Prefecture within Japan. As the disease grew in number and prevalence, Noriaki Tsuchimoto sought some sort of greater awareness and justification, which came in the form of his film, Minamata: The Victims and Their World. Such documentary put to light the social injustices of the large corporations, and called for the unity of the Japanese citizens against the evil big industry which poisoned Japanese waters and produce (in particular fish) with their mercury-enriched fertilizers. This very much paralleled the plights and struggle within the Momotarō folktale, making Momotarō an ideal figure to head the campaign against the evil demon’s of Japanese big industry. A Minimata community began to form in the periods following the the outbreak of the disease, as a result of the all the suffering and pain the villagers endured. Minimata, being heavily dependent upon the fish produce, suffered in silence whilst the big corporations, ignorant to their pains as they could afford food of higher quality and purity. This new community with its newly-found resolve and unification would at the very least have its voice heard, while gradually obtaining their goals of social justice with regards to the poisoning of Japanese waters.

Japan throughout its history of both prosperity and devastation would require a figure to unite its citizens in a holistic community, capable of uplifting any disaster. The tale of Momotarō fulfilled such role for the Japanese people with its aspects of camaraderie and resistance through the unification under the millet dumpling and symbolism of the peach. Time and time again, whether it be through literature or film, Momotarō and its food displays the greater power of a community as a opposed to an individual. Even the simplest of objects such as the food of millet dumplings can unify an entity that would otherwise be powerless while segmented. A war may be waged by a single entity, but it must be fought by the masses to be considered even possible. The importance of the Momotarō and food to Japan’s constant plight is undeniable, and will likely be prevalent for generations to come, whether it be as a result of the instillation of values, war of powers, or devastating disease, as is evident in Japan’s extensive history.


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