Last week’s post was about Rikuzentakata (りくぜんたかた / 陸前高田), so this week I need to start with た (ta). A big thank you to japanaustralia for suggesting Takayama (高山), Takamatsu (高松), Takahashi (高梁), tanuki (狸 / an animal), and taue (田植 / planting rice). In the end, I decided to write about…
Tanuki (たぬき / 狸)
Tanuki are something you will, without a doubt, notice if you visit Japan. I don’t mean the real thing though – I never saw an actual Japanese raccoon dog while I lived in Japan – but I’m sure you will spot these cute, slightly odd statues all over the place, especially outside restaurants.
Japanese raccoon dogs (tanuki) are a subspecies of the raccoon dog which are native to Japan. “Tanuki” is often translated into English as badger or raccoon, but this is incorrect. Here are a couple of the real things:
Aren’t they cute?
Well, they look cute in the picture above, but tanuki have a reputation for being quite mischievous. Tanuki have been significant characters in Japanese folklore since ancient times, known for being cheeky and jolly, and masters of disguise. Although tanuki are meant to be magical, shape-shifting creatures (obakemono), they are also known for being quite gullible and absentminded.
The tanuki of folklore (sometimes known as bake-danuki / 化け狸) are famous for their round pot-bellies, large straw hats, sake swilling habits, and… erm… incredibly large testicles. Yes, when you look at a statue of a tanuki, I’ve no doubt that one of the first things you’ll notice is how well-endowed he is.
The tanuki is said to use his testicles in magical ways, such as being able to stretch them out to the size of eight tatami mats (source). You can see this magic at work in the amusing ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861). There are lots of images available at pinktentacle.com, and here’s one of them which particularly tickled me:
But the tanuki’s magnificent testicles aren’t entirely myth, it seems, as this picture of a taxidermy tanuki shows:
There is a popular Japanese schoolyard song about the tanuki’s testicles which goes:
Tan tan tanuki no kintama wa (“tan-tan”, tanuki’s testicles ring)
Kaze mo nai no ni bura bura (The wind stops blowing, but they swing, swing)
I tried to find a video or recording of this song, but couldn’t find anything suitable on YouTube. However, the tanuki’s surprising assets (which apparently symbolise good luck, particularly financial luck) can be seen in this quirky Japanese commercial:
If you want to learn more about tanuki from a folklore point of view, I’d advise you to watch the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ / Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko). Pom Poko is about a group of tanuki who are threatened by a suburban development project on the outskirts of Tokyo in the early 1990s. Using their magical shape-shifting powers (and stretchy testicles), they fight back against the humans to stop the development.
When I first saw Pom Poko I didn’t really get all of the Japanese cultural references, but now that I understand a bit more about Japanese folklore and tanuki themselves, I absolutely love this movie.
Japanese folklore is full of amazing creatures, but I find tanuki to be one of most accessible. Not only will you see comical statues of them all over Japan, they are widely known and referenced in pop-culture, such as Pom Poko. I love the fact that Japanese culture still has such prominent folklore – you just don’t get characters like this in the UK.
Tanuki (たぬき) ends with き (ki), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “ki”. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below and I’ll give you a mention next week! And, don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v