Momotaro: Uniting the Community Through Food and Leadership

In Japan, as well as the rest of the world, communities often create strong bonds amongst themselves through social and physical interactions. While the most common way to bond is by verbal communication, sharing and providing food, a common worldwide staple, to one another takes community building to a whole different level. In the tale of the legendary Japanese folklore hero, Momotaro, also known as the Peach Boy, the symbolization of food establishes companionships amongst the characters throughout the story. In addition, Momotaro displays leadership in his community through his heroic acts in order to maintain the bonds instituted. Due to its popularity within the Japanese culture and the historic origins from the Edo era, many variations of Momotaro were made from folktales to movies to children’s books. Despite the variations of the folklore, Momotaro kept its foundations within each version.  Although the legend of the Momotaro was portrayed in many literary and visual variants, the basis of the story persists through the representation of food and leadership to unify and strengthen community relations.

Published in 1894, Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotaro =: The Story of Peach-Boy follows a traditional and definitive approach to the folk legend of Momotaro. Traditionally, an elderly couple found the character of Momotaro inside a giant peach; hence, the name, Peach Boy. The elderly couple rejoiced Momotaro and raised him to become strong and enterprising. Prior to the giant peach, the elderly man and woman were depicted as “both so sad” due to their lack of offspring (Sazanami 16). The celebration of the giant peach represents the power of food through strengthening bonds and enlightening emotions. Since the elderly couple is finally able to raise a child as a result of the peach, the joy of the upbringing of Momotaro will strengthen their bond and bring them pleasure since they are now obligated to raise him to his full potential.

After Momotaro receives millet dumplings from his father, he encounters a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant, his potential animal comrades. During his encounter with the monkey, Momotaro offers “half of one of the best millet dumplings in Japan” in exchange for the monkey’s loyalty and camaraderie (Sazanami 28).  Similarly, Momotaro also presents the dog and the pheasant with half of a millet dumpling in order to join him in his quest to defeat the enemy. The offering of the millet dumpling symbolizes camaraderie between Momotaro and his animal comrades since Momotaro traded with the animals in order to accompany him through loyalty and companionship during this journey. Instead of using paper currency, the millet dumpling was a type of payment and allowance Momotaro’s father gave him. As a form of currency, Momotaro was able to use the millet dumplings to acquire whatever he desires. Also, the millet dumpling represents unity with a universal staple although Momotaro and the animals are from different backgrounds. No matter where someone comes from, food will always unite a community together since it is essential to life.

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A monkey hands the dog millet dumplings for army rations before his flight.

As a unique tactic to dramatize the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, Seo Mitsuyo directed a Japanese propaganda anime version of Momotaro called Momotaro’s Sea Eagles in 1943. Unlike Iwaya Sazanami’s version of Momotaro, Mitsuyo adds a twist on the traditional story and uses the folklore’s main ideas to create a foundation in order to focus on the aspects of war propaganda. On the standpoint of food, the millet dumpling also symbolizes the bonds within a community in this version of Momotaro. Before a dog takes off with his airplane, a monkey supplies him with a bag of millet dumplings, which embodies army rations. During World War II, soldiers were often given rations for food, energy, and nutrition while on the battlefield. The handing of millet dumplings from the monkey to the dog just right before the flight symbolizes care and friendship between the two animals. A caring friend will typically give a gift to a friend who is leaving on a long or dangerous journey. On the aspect of the nutritional value of the millet dumpling, the Japanese soldiers were chowing down a healthy treat during their mission while the Americans were drinking alcohol. This shows that the Japanese value their health during times of war in order to become successful in their attacks instead of just enjoying sinful practices, such as drinking alcohol.

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Momotaro shares his millet dumplings with a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant.

Goro Arai and Koyosha Shuppan’s children’s picture book adaptation of Momotaro provides a simplistic and artistic account of the traditional folktale.  Similar to Sazanami’s Momotaro =: The Story of Peach-Boy, Momotaro shared his millet dumplings with a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant in the picture book version. Unlike the traditional folklore version, the millet dumplings are not clearly connected to bribing the animals into helping Momotaro with his quest. On pages five and six of the picture book, the dog and the monkey eagerly wait for Momotaro to open his bag of millet dumplings while the pheasant’s yearning facial expression indicates that he wants to a share of millet dumplings from Momotaro. From the look of Momotaro’s facial expression, he seems upset over the fact that the animals wanted a portion of his millet dumplings, but Momotaro decides to share the millet dumplings anyway due to his heroic nature. The sharing of millet dumplings represents a formation of an alliance between Momotaro and the animals since the animals are willing to accompany Momotaro after they eat the millet dumplings. The presence of Momotaro’s bag of millet dumplings drew the animals to ask for a share of the treat and form a companionship with Momotaro.

Since the traditional folktale and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles focus on different settings and time periods, the characterization of Momotaro differs between the two versions of the story. In the traditional folktale of Momotaro, Momotaro is characterized as a traditional Japanese boy who was “sent down to [Japan] by the command of the god of Heaven” (Sazanaki 14). Due to his divine nature, the citizens of Japan were brought together as a community to praise Momotaro for his inherent leadership and heroic abilities in order to defeat the ogres. To receive help with fighting the ogres, Momotaro bribes his animal companions with half of a millet dumpling to obtain their loyalty and camaraderie. This denotes the authority and inherent dominance of Momotaro’s leadership amongst his community; his community must obey his commands.

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Momotaro prepares the animal soldiers for the attack on Ogre Island.

On the other hand, Momotaro in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles embodies a determined captain of the Japanese animal soldiers during the period of World War II. In contrast to the traditional folklore Momotaro actually fighting against the enemy himself, the war captain Momotaro advises his soldiers to attack Ogre Island, which represents Pearl Harbor and the Americans. Instead of actually participating in the attacks, Momotaro distances himself from the lower-ranked soldiers and thrives in his hierarchy as a war captain. However, his leadership and commands bring the militants together to successfully defeat the enemy at Ogre Island.

Retaining the theme of the representation of food and leadership within the community, the three different versions Momotaro maintain the foundation of the story within their compositions. The three variations of the legend of Momotaro represent the power of food in establishing and strengthening bonds with one another. Although food may be viewed as just a common everyday staple, the power and worth of food is ideal in uniting the community through strong bonds and companionships.

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