Probably my favourite of all the Japanese fauna is the tanuki. These little creatures are a couple of feet long and resemble a kind of fox-badger-raccoon hybrid. Indeed, they are often called ‘raccoon dogs’ in English, although they are very much a part of the dog family, and not actually raccoons at all. They trundle along the forest floor on short legs, looking for food with their cute panda eyes and eating pretty much anything they can find. Insects. lizards, frogs and even toads whose poison they can dilute with saliva are all worthy fare for the tanuki. They are nice little things, surprisingly nice for a creature renowned for having enormous testicles. Here’s a well-kent Japanese song about him:
Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
The words basically mean:
Tan Tan Tan ring the Tanuki’s balls,
Even when the wind stops blowing,
They swing away.
Isn’t that a lovely song?
Anyone who visits Japan will get to see a tanuki and its spectacular scrotum. Perhaps not a real one, but the tanuki occupies a prominent place in Japanese folklore, and ceramic statues of them are all over the place, usually outside eating and drinking establishments. The fellow you will see standing at the doors to such places is a character built over centuries of myths and folklore originating in both China and Japan. Today, the common sight of a tanuki statue will be one of a plump smiling chap with moobs and a bushy tail, standing on two legs, carrying a sake flask in one hand, a ledger book in the other, whilst wearing a straw hat and proudly displaying an enormous scrotum which hangs to the ground.
Back in the day, the tanuki character started off as a bit of a worrisome fellow. He was a supernatural being who could change shape and would sometimes adopt a human form and haunt people or bring misery upon them. He was an omen of ill. Over the centuries though, tanuki became more likeable fellows, loveable rogues and mischievous tricksters with a magical ability to dupe people really. The promissory note in hand is testament to this skill. It is a ledger of his unpaid bills. One of the tanuki’s devious skills, you see, was to go out for an evening’s merriment and settle the bill with what looked to be gold and silver, only for his payment to revert to dirt and stones or withered leaves once he had fled.
The sake bottle in his other hand is usually traced back to the myth of the tanuki being a bit of a sake lover, a tale which likely began in the seventeenth century in the sake brewing districts of Osaka and Kyoto. There, a little ditty was sung which told of a tanuki coming on a rainy night to get some sake for his little flask. The Association of Shiragaki Ceramic Companies (Shiragaki ceramics are well-known for creating the ubiquitous pudgy tanuki statues) tells of how, from the late 16th century, the breweries in the Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe area spread the story that delicious sake could only be made at breweries which had a tanuki in residence. And hence, it would seem, we now have the cute little boozy fellow outside hostelries everywhere.
But what of that enormous scrotal sack. Where did that come from? Mark Brazil, writing in The Japan Times in 1998, said that, ‘the statues are correct about their biology in one important detail: testes size,’ adding that, ‘the scrotum is large because of high levels of competition among males for females. This means that they copulate very frequently — and need large testes.’ It is true that the tanuki has a high reproduction potential, with females often giving birth to litters of nine, but the tanuki in general is not a promiscuous shagger. Kaarine Kauhala, who completed a doctorate on ‘raccoon dogs’ at The University of Helsinki notes that the raccoon dog is ‘strictly monogamous’. She does, however, qualify this by adding, ‘with the possible exception of the Japanese raccoon dog’. So maybe the Japanese tanuki shags around a bit more than his foreign cousins, but in general terms he prefers to continue to impregnate his long-term missus. Thereafter, he stays home and looks after the kids, keeping them cozy in the nest as the wife goes out foraging for food, which seems quite at odds with the boozy chap out on the town we have come to know and love. In any event, big-balled he may be, but that scientific fact alone is not the reason why his artistic representations have such enormous scrotums. And nor is the big ballbag meant to be indicative of his sexual proclivity. Rather it has come to represent a certain good fortune with money. And to find out why that should be so, we need to visit the metal workers of Kanazawa Prefecture.
In his book, Hagane no Chishiki, Shigeo Owaku traces the scrotum legend to those metal workers noting that when making gold leaf, the metal workers would wrap gold in tanuki skin before they hammered it into thin sheets. The combination of the gold’s malleability and the tanuki skin’s strength meant that even small pieces of gold could be thinned out to the size of eight tatami mats. And here’s where a bit of word play comes in. You see, ‘a small ball of gold’ in Japanese is kin no tama, and common slang for testicles is the very similar kintama. The saying about the gold leaf morphed into a belief that the scrotum could reach the size of eight tatami mats. Alice Gordeneker wrote in the Japan Times that, ‘Soon, images of a tanuki began to be sold as prosperity charms, purported to stretch one’s money and bring good fortune.’ And so the shift from original harbinger of evil to purveyor of good luck and prosperity was basically complete.
The big scrotum has appeared in many tanuki tales and legends, as well as in a lot of artwork. In a precursor to Viz Comic’s ‘Buster Gonad and His Unfeasibly Large Testicles’ several Japanese 19th century artists made woodblock prints showing tanuki using their comically large ballbags in a variety of tasks. There is a fine slideshow of many such prints at here where you can see the creatures transporting heavy goods upon them, using them as nets to catch birds and fish, making them into monsters, employing them as makeshift umbrellas to shelter from the rain, and even hanging them down in front of doorways as decorative shop signs.
Movies, comics, and television too, have shown such creativity. In the animated film Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko the scrotum was brought into use as an emergency parachute and in comic books they have been used as blankets, boats and even to build entire rooms and landscapes. There seems to be no limit as to the things you can do with a massive bag.
One slightly disturbing discovery I made when reading about the tanuki, was of a slightly odd television commercial by a Japanese building company featuring Little Red Riding Hood and a happy ball-swinging tanuki. In it, little Red Riding Hood is walking through the forest when she comes across some animal chums – a rabbit, a bear, a deer and a wolf, they seem to be – and, as you do, she begins to sing a song and do a little dance about Surpass Mansions, the properties the building company was advertising. With the dancing animals by here side she sings,
‘Your dreams will swell, Surpass Mansion
Your hopes will swell, Surpass Mansion
Your breasts will swell, swell, swell!’
Just then a tanuki pops out in front of them swinging his enormous nuts around, prompting Little Red Riding Hood to stop in wonder and just say, ‘Wow!’ Here it is:
Now, I suppose the company wanted to capitalise on the legend of tanuki bringing good fortune and prosperity into your life and to suggest that living in one of their properties you could attain such goals. That bit makes at least some sense. You know, a ‘Start you prosperous life with Surpass Mansions,’ sort of thing. I’m not sure what to make of the other implication though, the one that says, ‘And you, too, can have huge tits!’
The testicles are not the only part of the tanuki that he makes use of for unconventional purposes. His rotund tum is also a common feature in tales of old. He would often beat upon his belly in order to lure travellers astray for trickery, but at other times he seemed to like to beat upon his belly just for the joy of making music.
They could be a bit huffy though. In a tale from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari, a tanuki was being chased when he came to the home of a hairdresser who allowed him to take refuge under his porch. That night, the hairdresser’s son was mindlessly tapping out a rhythm on the hibachi stove, when the tanuki decided to join in and began drumming his belly along with the beat. The hairdresser was astounded and gathered up the neighbours to confirm that they too could hear the beat. They could indeed and the tanuki continued his drumming all through the night.
Well, it was fun at first but when they finally wanted to sleep it got a bit annoying. The hairdresser went out to see the tanuki and told him to give it a rest and let everyone get a bit of shut-eye. The tanuki stopped and all seemed well. The next day, a crowd gathered at noon to listen once more to the belly beating entertainment. After all, this was a perfectly reasonable hour and the previous night’s request hadn’t meant to offend. The tanuki had done his bit, though. He never drummed from under the porch again.
A Kyoto dwelling tanuki would have done well to give it a rest, too. His tale begins in the rice field one night when he heard a samisen master teaching a student. He beat his tummy in rhythmic accompaniment and late into the night the master and student enjoyed a lengthy session with their mysterious, hidden drummer. At dawn the drumming stopped. In the morning light the tanuki’s body was found in the rice field. Blood flowed out of his mouth and his belly had been beaten bare. He’d got a bit carried away and beaten himself to death.
The tanuki, then, is a an interesting fellow. But his cunning shapeshifting, his loveable rogue antics in deceit and tomfoolery, his Pon Poko Pon Pon drumming and his enormous scrotum are not the reasons he is my favourite creature found on these isles. Nor is it because the real tanuki has a cute wee face and a bushy tail. No, the simple reason I like the tanuki so much is that whenever I see him standing by a door, flask in hand and balls on display, I can be almost certain that I am at a place with beer.
For almost anything you could ever want to know about the tanuki, you should visit this site.