The Affable, Mischievous, and Bizarre Tanuki: An Abridged History

Please note: This post contains images of classic works of art depicting scrotum and the abuse of.

I warned you.

Tanuki are a bit of a mixed bag of real animal, evil spirit and imp of prosperity. They have been a staple in Japanese mythology for over a thousand years, as nature gods, tricksters, and malevolent monsters, but like many of Japan’s old ghosts and demons, these days they have a gentler, more cartoonish image.

800px-Tanuki01_960Tanuki are, in fact, real animals.  While the name is often translated into English as ‘raccoon-dog’ they are neither. Nor are they badgers, though they share a resemblance.  At eight to ten pounds, and little more than two feet long, they aren’t any bigger than a mid-sized dog. Unless you count all the fur. Tanuki have a great, thick coat on a round body that contributes to their misidentification, along with the bands of light and dark on otherwise brown fur. As nocturnal forest dwellers, they are seen only when human habitats collide with their own, and they don’t help to dispel the raccoon misnomer by foraging in urban areas like one.

Early Japanese mythology gives tanuki similar powers as foxes. This connection was likely influenced by existing Chinese mythology imported into Japan. Like foxes, tanuki were said to have the ability to shape-shift, haunt people and places, and possess human hosts. However, unlike the Chinese evil fox-spirit and Japanese divine fox-spirit legends, tanuki are depicted as less graceful, less dignified and less clever. While tricking humans is a popular past-time for tanuki, they can often be tricked themselves.

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As tanuki legends in Japan separated further from their Chinese origins, their abilities and vices shifted from evil demon-like creature, to a more benign spirit. Less often would they attack with the intent to harm their victim. Instead, they would lead woodsmen off their trail, imitate Buddhist monks and engage in petty theft. They temporarily turned rocks into gold, and dung into food, and developed a taste for sake.

398px-20100727_Nikko_tanuki_Imgp5788Much of the mythical tanuki’s current appearance has come from this shift in cultural perceptions. The straw hat or umbrella is believed to have originated from the belief that tanuki steals sake on rainy nights, the jug he is seldom seen without contains this sake (stolen or otherwise unpaid for), and the whimsical smile denotes his gullible nature.

But what about his pot belly and those enormous balls, probably the two most eye-catching features of this strange little beast?

While there is some speculation as to the origins of that huge gut, there are several possibilities from which to choose, ranging from social commentary, the creature’s beguiling belly percussion, Japanese puns and, of course, the fat, round appearance of the real animal itself. These days, the round belly of the tanuki symbolizes good sense and composure, as well as boldness in action.

The origins of the tanuki’s laughably large scrotum are somewhat easier to trace. Back in the day, metal workers would use tanuki skin to pound gold into super thin sheets. This combined with the fact that the Japanese words for “small bag of gold” and “testicles” are nearly identical made the connection that much easier. In present day, a large tanuki nutsack still represents good fortune with finances. I’ve even been told that tanuki stores all of his gold in his colossal set of family jewels.

But the legendary tanuki does far more with his scrotal skin than use it as a coin purse. I could explain, but a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Tanuki using a scrotum as a drum.

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Tanuki using their scrotum for warmth.

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Tanuki using their scrotum to make a lovely goldfish imitation, while simultaneously crushing a man to death.

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Tanuki stomping another tanuki’s scrotum flat to use as a sumo ring.

These aren’t the limits of tanuki scrotal use by far. If you’re curious, you can run a Google search, or check out the link to a detailed analysis of tanuki anatomy provided below.

The current image of the round, cartoonish tanuki is relatively new, largely stemming from the first quarter of the 20th century. Today, tanuki statues both miniature and gargantuan can be found outside of most businesses and houses, especially restaurants and bars where tanuki’s love of fine wine, food and fun invite guests to share his passions. As well as coming in different sizes, these days tanuki come in many different varieties. Some are female, swapping out the large testicles for large breasts, some hold children, or carry umbrellas in place of hats.  Some are dressed while some remain naked.

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In my short story “Where the Fireflies Go”, a ceramic tanuki and his gargoyle friend protect the home of their master from a terrifying monster of the ancient world in what may be the last stand of the old ways in face of the new. Despite enjoying a sedentary life of comfort and ease, Tanuki overcomes his fears to face down a demon no piece of pottery in his right mind ought to tangle with.

What’s clear is that tanuki’s past and current popularity in Japan will see that it is a staple in daily lives for a long time yet, bringing the people who know it wealth, luck and prosperity, and confusing foreigners for many years to come.

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If you would like a copy of “Where the Fireflies Go”, as well as twenty-three other short stories from around the Asia-Pacific region, please consider a donation to the indiegogo campaign for Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction, and receive an electronic or paper copy of the book before its official release date of April 30th.

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If you would like to delve deeper into the history and mythology of the tanuki, please check out the Japanese Buddhist Statuary where tanuki are discussed at length in all their cultural and historical significance.

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One thought on “The Affable, Mischievous, and Bizarre Tanuki: An Abridged History

  1. Pingback: Kitsune Onna: The Fox Woman | Part Time Monster

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