The Dōbutsuen: Tanuki

The Dōbutsuen: Tanuki

Some of the members of the Dōbutsuen you will encounter on a mythological tour of Japan are terrifying and should be avoided at all costs. Others, like the humble tanuki, are much more friendly, mischievous and jolly animals… though utterly bizarre!

Tanuki [狸]

Tanuki are native Japanese raccoon dogs. They have been a part of Japanese culture since ancient times and remain a very visible and common sight on the streets of Japan. Tanuki are talented at shapeshifting and disguise, though unlike the kitsune [狐] or fox they are quite harmless and gullible creatures who are more likely to steal your lunch than attack you!

The tanuki is an indigenous species to Japan which is often confused with the western racoon or badger. You will often meet one when going out for an evening meal, for similarly to the maneki neko [招き猫] or lucky cat, they are the patrons of the successful Japanese restaurant.

The tanuki is an extremely lucky creature. Its eight special traits traditionally describe the kinds of good fortune it embodies (and make it easy to spot!).

First, the tanuki wears a large straw hat on its head which protects against storms and bad weather. He carries a large bottle of sake [酒] or rice wine in one paw which represents virtue, and in the other paw a promissory note which represents trust and confidence.

He has big eyes, as he is an observant creature who sees a lot and makes wise decisions. His tail is large to provide steadiness and strength and has a big belly which makes him bold and serene. The tanuki has over-sized testicles which represent financial luck and finally, always wears a friendly smile on his face.

One attribute in particular from that list may have caught your attention. The real tanuki does indeed have large testicles, which in Japanese are kintama [金玉], literally ‘golden balls’. Depictions of the tanuki often feature humourously enlarged kintama, both to attract prosperity and occasionally, as weapons or even parachutes (such as in the beloved Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko).

A popular children’s rhyme goes as follows,

Tan-tan-tanuki no kintama wa [たんたん狸の金玉は]
kaze mo nai no ni ‘bura-bura!’ [風もないのにブラブラ!]

Tan-tan-tanuki’s golden balls,
though there’s no wind they go ‘swing-swing!’

Amazingly enough, this rhyme is sung to the tune of the American hymn Shall We Go To The River? which was introduced to Japan in the 1970s then parodied as a children’s song.

There are many stories about the loveable and roguish tanuki and this is possibly the most well-known. It is called Bunbuku Chagama [ぶんぶく茶釜] which means ‘bubbling over with happiness like a tea pot’.

A poor man named Jinbei was returning home one evening and on his journey, he had to travel through a forest. On his way he found a tanuki tormented by a trap it had become stuck in. Feeling quite sorry for the tanuki, Jinbei set it free. The tanuki disappeared into the undergrowth and Jinbei continued on his way.

Later that night, the tanuki visited him at home. To Jinbei’s great surprise, the tanuki could speak and thanked him for his great kindness. In return, the tanuki offered to help Jinbei. It would change into a fine tea kettle, which he could then sell.

The next day, Jinbei sold the tea kettle to a monk, who immediately returned to the temple and proceeded to scrub the kettle harshly and use it to make tea. The tanuki had planned to slip away unnoticed at the first opportunity, but was now caught in a fine mess. It could not bear the heat of the fire, and to the monk’s great surprise, his new tea kettle sprouted legs and ran from the room.

The tanuki-tea kettle did not stop running until it reached the edge of the forest and the safety of Jinbei’s hut. Jinbei felt remorse for going along with the tanuki’s plan, as it had been burned badly on the monk’s stove. He tended the tanuki’s wounds and gave it a place to sleep in his own house.

The next day the tanuki’s wounds were healed. However, the monk who had bought the tea kettle came to Jinbei’s house and demanded compensation for the kettle and for the fire damage caused to the temple. In the end, Jinbei was forced to pay the monk more money than he had been given for the kettle in the first place!

Jinbei despaired. However, the tanuki felt obliged to Jinbei for saving its life and, this time, thought very carefully about a better way of making money. Soon, it came up with an idea. The tanuki told Jinbei to open a travelling circus show, featuring a tea kettle which could walk on a tightrope. All who saw this show were amazed, as they did not know that the tea kettle was the tanuki in disguise.

Jinbei soon made his fortune and invited the tanuki to live with him. The tanuki agreed and the two friends lived happily ever after.

Photo credit: JohnTrip3 @ webshots


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