Katō Kiyomasa, the Tiger Hunter


Kato Kiyomasa is well known for the legend that he genuinely hunted and killed tigers. The stage of tiger hunting story is known to be Joseon. It is said that Kiyomasa was angry about the tiger by attacking his page boy (servant) during his stay in Joseon for the Imjin War. According to the legend, Kiyomasa then surrounded the mountain with his men and killed the tiger. Would he really catch the tiger? In fact, the Tokugawa Museum of Art houses artifacts presumed to be tiger bones, supporting this interesting legend.


The Warrior Kato Kiyomasa's Tiger Hunt Hikifuda Handbill

Meiji Period, lithography, 36.3x 50.5 cm, Kyoto National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)

Hikifuda refers to a handbill or leaflet for advertising products. The term was created during the development of the ukiyoe printing in the Edo period 1603–1868. One of the motifs that often appeared on hikifuda was a tiger.


The figure in this print in samurai armor is Katō Kiyomasa; he is trying to stab the tiger with a jumoji yari, a spear with a cross-shaped blade. The tiger roars in response.

Katakama Type Spearhead, Muromachi period, 16th century, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)
Katakama Type Spearhead, Muromachi period, 16th century, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)

Legend has it that this spear was the one used by Katō Kiyomasa when hunting the tiger because one of its blades appears to be broken. We can see one side is shorter than the other. However, according to the museum, the spear seems to have been made in this shape from the beginning. Kiyomasa's daughter Yōrin-in 瑤林院 brought this as a dowry when she wed Tokugawa Yorinobu, the first lord of the Kishū Domain.


Katō Kiyomasa, a Japanese Warrior

Kiyomasa Katō’s image is widely associated with his colorful armor and helmets. This type of armor, called tōseigusoku meaning a contemporary set, was popular from the late Muromachi period (1338–1573) through the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1603). Although this is not the armor that Kiyomasa actually wore, it shows the vogue for colorful armor followed by warriors during the Sengoku period (1467-1615). 


Tōsei-gusoku Armor with variegated lacing. Edo period, 18th century, iron, leather, lacquer, silk, gilt copper, Chest H: 70.4cm. National Museum of Korea ⓒNational Museum of Korea
Tōsei-gusoku Armor with variegated lacing. Edo period, 18th century, iron, leather, lacquer, silk, gilt copper, Chest H: 70.4cm. National Museum of Korea ⓒNational Museum of Korea

Possessions of Katō Kiyomasa


The following two spears were produced during the late Muromachi period. Together with the katakama spearhead above, they were all given as part of the dowry when Kiyomasa’s daughter married. They were all handed down from generation to generation in the Tokugawa family and were known as “the weapons of Kiyomasa.”


Kaneshige Spearhead, Muromachi period, 16th century, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)
Kaneshige Spearhead, Muromachi period, 16th century, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)
Asafune Sukesada Spearhead, Muromachi period, 1504 Eishō 1, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)
Asafune Sukesada Spearhead, Muromachi period, 1504 Eishō 1, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)
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