Explorations in Japanese Culture
Tanuki are similar to Maneki Neko in that they are often placed in the front of shops to invite in customers and are considered to be good luck. However, the Tanuki is a real animal in Japan that can be seen all across the country with many different stories and folktales surroundings its mischievous nature. Just try not to be offset by the overly large “golden jewels” commonly found on the statues…
The tanuki is not a raccoon, but is actually a member of the dog family that happens to resemble a racoon (which is exclusive to North America). While some may know it as a “racoon dog” in english, it does not have the rings on its tail like a racoon and it walks on its toes like a dog. Interestingly enough though, while the Tanuki are a members of the dog family, they do not bark. While most animals in the dog family live in open areas the tanuki prefer heavily wooded areas and are more omnivorous than most canids. Tanuki eat small animals as well as different seeds and berries, but during the 1980s and 1990s tanuki have taken to scavenging from trash and dumps in more heavily populated areas across Japan. Tanuki have continuously adapted to the growing urban environment of Japan and are even accepted among many as seen in the video below.
The video talks about a group of 7 tanuki that have become common around a local golf course. After being continuously fed by many golfers they have become accustomed to the people and the sport, paying no real mind to the players at all. They are relatively normal animals where it not for the interesting role they have played for centuries in Japanese folklore.
The tanuki is seen as a plump, comical character in Japanese folk-lore, and similar to the fox (kitsune) it is able to shape shift and is prone to mischief. The tanuki is considered a master of transformation and is able to change into anything and often uses these powers to play tricks on humans. Since the Tanuki live in the forests of Japan, stories often tell of tanuki playing tricks on hunters and woodsmen. They sometimes turn leaves into fake money (which they often use for buying sake) or horse dung into delicious looking meals. The tanuki is constantly on the prowl for sake, food and women, often using the transformed money to obtain these things.
Of course the most infamous aspects of the tanuki’s shape shifting involves its testicles. It is said that the tanuki can stretch its scrotum into a vast sheet that exceeds eight tatami mats in size. In folklore the tanuki use their expanded testicles as a raincoat, a blanket, a boat (pictured left), a weapon or may even disguise them as another monster in order to scare fellow tanuki. Some stories even tell of tanuki using their scrotum to form large rooms, which they will use to invite humans in to do business with. However, the illusion is often broken when a lit cigarette is dropped on the floor which causes the tanuki to run away yelping in pain. The tanuki is also said to be fond of coming out at dusk and drumming on his plump belly or golden jewels, which fills the night air with the deep hollow sound of pon-poko-pon. It is worth noting, that the golden jewels of the tanuki are not related to sexuality or fertility, but are instead a symbol of good luck. The Japanese are much more tolerant of low brow humor and this is seen as a silly kind of thing.
Interestingly enough, there is a reason the tanuki are depicted with these large testicles, the golden jewels are based of the tanuki’s own disproportionately large testicles. In terms of evolutionary biology, the tanuki’s scrotum is large because of the fierce competition among the males for females. The males who have the larger testes are more likely to pass on their genes, and therefore pass on the trait.
I have talked up until now about the tanuki in folk-lore, but have not covered the popular tanuki statue that is found in front of many bars and restaurants. The tanuki statue’s appearance is based on the folklore, but has not been around as long. A small town called Shigaraki is famous for making the ceramic tanuki statues. They started making them during the Edo period as good luck charms, but in the 19th century they were used to identify shops that sold soba noodles. The statues were first used by a famous soba noodle shop in Tokyo near Tanuki Bridge. The shop developed a specific dish called Tanuki Soba, where the soba is cooked with tempura batter. As tanuki soba became popular and spread throughout Japan, soba shops would place a tanuki statue outside to show that they sold the popular dish. The tanuki statues gained further popularity when Emperor Hirohito visited Shigaraki in 1951. He was so taken by the statues that he wrote a poem about them and their popularity grew. Shigaraki celebrates the tanuki every year by giving them the day off on November 8th. On this day of celebration the tanuki are given the day off and have their eyes covered by stickers to make their eyes looked closed. You can visit the site all about this rest day where you can buy t-shirts and suggest ideas for the celebration.
Tanuki were the subject of Studio Ghibli’s 1994 film by Isao Takahata Pom Poko. The film is about a group of tanuki who have their forests invaded by the urban expansion of Japan. They decide to attempt to keep the people out of their forest through various means of trickery and the movie illustrates many aspects of the Tanuki folklore. Below is a trailer for the movie. Sorry for not having english subs, but it is the best trailer I found. If you have not seen it, it is definitely worth checking out, I loved it!