Crash Course: Tanuki

My husband is a big knickknack collector. Somewhere in a storage unit in California, there are way too many boxes of snow globes, Eiffel Tower key chains, Russian matryoshka dolls and dozens of mini flags (with stands of course) from our many and varied travels. I always seemed to be fighting an endless battle against what I – thanks to my mother’s upbringing – term “useless clutter”.

In Japan, with limited space, his hoarding proclivities are thankfully kept to a minimum. But as we look (far) ahead to the future and our (hopefully) spacious dream home, he is starting to think bigger on the collectibles. The most recent item on his acquisition list is a statue of a tanuki to sit outside our door.

The easiest way to explain a tanuki is to call it a raccoon dog. But in reality (or rather, biology), tanuki aren’t related to raccoons at all. They’re in the same family as wolves and foxes and are native to East Asia. While it’s highly unlikely you’ll spot one of these critters  during your time in Japan, you’re even less likely to sight one in the winter as tanuki actually hibernate.

A tanuki statue in Tokyo
A tanuki statue in Tokyo

Tanuki play a pretty sizable role in Japanese folklore, mostly as yokai or Japanese monster spirits. Mythical tanuki (called bake-danuki) are shapeshifters, bent on malevolent acts against humans. Sometime in the past century, however, the idea of the tanuki has been rehabilitated a bit. They’ve become cartoonish characters who beat their stomachs like drums and use their giant testicles to fly.

Yes, I said giant testicles. Tanuki are famed for their prodigious, ahem, balls and as crazy as that sounds, it actually has some basis in history. The scrotum of the tanuki is quite large for an animal of its size, and their parts were once actually sewn into wallets in which merchants would carry their coins. (Gives a whole new meaning to the common Japanese term for “scrotum” – kintama or ‘money balls’). Goldsmiths in Kanazawa actually used the skin of the tanuki’s scrotum to wrap around gold coins and bars and hammer them into thin sheets. This gave rise to the idea of the tanuki’s scrotum being able to “stretch one’s money” and consequently, the wallet marketers got in on the action. 🙂

Today, you’ll often find statue of tanuki (with their large … appendages) standing outside of restaurants. These statues usually sport large bellies, sake flasks, promissory note, straw hat and – more often than not – rather vacant or silly expressions. This image supposedly comes from an old Kansai region folk song from the 16th and 17th centuries about a tanuki who goes in search of sake. The statue beckons visitors into the bar or restaurant and encourages them to spend freely.

Chances are you’ll stumble across many a tanuki statue during your travels in Japan but for something a little different, don’t miss out on the Chingodo Shrine in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood, which is actually dedicated to the tanuki.

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