the tanuki zone

13Dec09

The tanuki (狸) is an indigenous Japanese mammal that is sometimes referred to in English as a “badger” or a “raccoon dog.”  Since the tanuki doesn’t actually resemble either closely, I think it’s best to stick to the local nomenclature.  Tanuki have been a part of Japanese folklore since ancient times and are one of the animal species that have traditionally been thought to have the power of shapeshifting (the others include foxes, badgers, wolves, spiders, some kinds of cats and dogs, and certain snakes).  The most common form that the tanuki takes these days is the form of the famous shigaraki-yaki ceramic tanuki that comes standard with enormous eyes, huge testicles, a straw hat, and a sake flask.  These ceramic tanuki can be found at the doorways of households, as in the shot above, but they are most commonly found outside of restaurants where they are used to advertise — with all their totemic rotundity — good food and lots of drink.

The ceramic tanuki will often have the Japanese number eight (八) drawn on its sake flask, a number that putatively refers to the eight lucky virtues that the tanuki is said to represent.  Wikipedia summarizes the eight virtues as follows:

The eight traits are (1) a bamboo hat that protects against trouble, (2) big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions, (3) a sake bottle that represents virtue, (4) a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved, (5) over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck, (6) a promissory note that represents trust, (7) a big belly that symbolizes bold decisiveness, and (8) a friendly smile.

The tanuki are said to be mischievous creatures, perhaps a bit like the trickster-god Coyote,  and I think there might be a bit of trickery at work with the description of the eight virtues given here; almost none of my Japanese friends views the tanuki in the way that has been presented above, a state of affairs that can easily be understood by thinking about the distinction between symbol and allegory.  Traditionally, allegories have used images to represent a second level of meaning, though there’s not necessarily a direct relationship between the image itself and what it represents.  A good example of this would be the sake bottle that the tanuki carries.  There seems to be no obvious and immediate connection between sake and virtue (actually, quite the opposite would seem to be true), and in fact the only way we can know that the tanuki’s sake bottle represents virtue is by learning this information.  Allegory is a system of meaning that is always culturally enforced at some level.  A symbol, on the other hand, is thought to contain an organic connection between the idea that is represented and the image that represents it.  A good example of this would be the image of broken chains that is commonly used to represent freedom.  Since a person who  is bound in chains literally becomes free when they break their chains and escape, there is an obvious and uncomplicated connection between the symbol itself and the second level of meaning it carries within it.

Despite all of the allegorical claims to virtue, what the tanuki represents to most people on the symbolic level is mischief, boozing, gluttony, and perhaps a bit of licentiousness as well.  Rather than representing virtue and courage, the sake bottle and the bulging stomach more immediately have come to stand in for the pleasures of eating and drinking.  The promissory note that the tanuki carries may allegorically represent trust, but I think that most people will actually associate the note with all of the famous stories of tanuki paying for their feasts with money that later, mysteriously, turns out only to have been leaves painted with 円 signs.  But the testicles, of course, are probably the most symbolically charged of the tanuki’s body parts.  In the allegorical reading the testicles symbolize “financial luck,” but what I hear over and over again is that what the testicles represent is a warning to not be stingy with your money.  In other words, when you go out eating and drinking you should lay out for your friends who have less, and you certainly shouldn’t refrain from ordering that one last glass of tasty 純米大吟醸日本酒 (high-grade sake) just because you want to save a little cash.  The reason that the testicles are associated with money rests on a pun; in Japanese the testicles are euphemistically referred to as 金玉 (kin-tama), or “golden balls” — a bit like the English-language “family jewels” — and the tanuki’s sack gets the extra-special designation of 金袋 (kin-bukuro), or “money bags.”

While the tanuki’s testicles may be symbolically related to luck and money, one of the most interesting aspects of this particular body part is the uses it’s put to in shapeshifting.  Here’s a description — from the very excellent Obakemono Project site — of a few of the various forms that the kin-bukuro has taken:

Of course the most infamous aspect of the tanuki‘s shapeshifting involves its testicles. By blowing air and pulling, the male raccoon dog can stretch his scrotum into a vast sheet exceeding eight tatami mats in size. Sometimes only exceptionally clever tanuki called mamedanuki are said to be able to do this. The tanuki in comic art is portrayed employing his expanded testicles in numerous ways – he may use them as a raincoat or a blanket, a boat or a blunt weapon, he may disguise them as another yōkai such as a rokuro-kubi or a tengu in order to frighten his fellow raccoon dogs, or he may even traipse through a landscape made up entirely of hairy, wrinkled scrotal skin. The mame-danuki in particular is said to transform its testicular expanse into rooms and invite humans in to do business, but often a lit cigarette dropped on the “floor” will break the illusion and send the revealed animal fleeing and yelping in pain.

The tanuki is also said to be fond of coming out at dusk and drumming on its plump belly and distended kin-tama (“golden balls”), filling the night air with the deep hollow sound of pon-poko-pon.

It’s often pointed out that the tanuki’s testicles are not an overt representation of sexual license, and I think this is probably mostly true.  However, it’s not hard to see the interconnections between the concepts of transformation and transference, and a more accurate way to think about the relationship between lust and the tanuki’s kin-tama might be to imagine the erotic charge inherent in such a sexually overt image as transferred into, with a bit of dissipation, the structures of feeling surrounding luck and money.  Not much of a stretch, once you consider the English-language expressions “get lucky” and “money shot.”  Desire, of course, is famous for both its mobility — its ability to be transferred from one object to another — and for its ability to transform any potentially innocent object into an object of erotic investment.  Keeping this in mind, this series of woodblock prints depicting the infinite uses to which the tanuki’s testicles may be put takes on an especially interesting register.

As far as real tanuki go, I’ve had several personal encounters since I’ve lived in Japan, probably because I live close to the mountains where there’s still enough habitat for tanuki communities to survive.  Here’s a list of my various encounters:

1) Twice, both times during the day, I’ve run into a mangy tanuki missing large patches of hair trotting on the path that leads to the campus where I teach.  The tanuki seemed to have plenty of energy, but it was a really sad-looking creature.  I wonder whether the mange was naturally occurring, or if it was an effect of the tanuki’s close contact with urbanization.

2) Teaching class one day I saw through the window a baby tanuki happily hopping along while a large crow happily hopped along behind it.  The tanuki was too large to be threatened by the crow and too small to be a threat to the crow.  It seemed like they were having fun together.

3) In Kanazawa, coming back to the minshuku at night, my companion and I spotted a tanuki nosing around the restaurants and stores that were located in the area.  When the tanuki saw us it took one quick glance and then continued on with its business, completely bored by our presence.

4) Coming home one night from an extended bout of eating and drinking with friends, perhaps a bit in the tanuki zone myself, I saw an enormously fat tanuki come trundling down a set of stairs, quickly away on its mysterious tanuki business.



12 Responses to “the tanuki zone”

  1. You mean these animals actually exist??? Wow, and here I thought they were just some crazy invention of the Japanese – my only experience with them was the Tanuki suit you could get in Super Mario Bros. 3 on the original Nintendo…

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      You can be forgiven for thinking they were some kind of mythical fantasy creature, given how little the ceramic tanukis look like the actual animal itself. If you saw a real tanuki and didn’t know what it was you might not make a connection in your mind to those ceramic tanukis at all!

      I didn’t know about the Mario Bros. tanuki suit, but now I’m thinking — shouldn’t I have one of those in real life? I can imagine the stir it would generate, being worn around the city at night.

  2. 3 Erik T

    I always thought that they were feet. See you on the east coast.

    • 4 Trane DeVore

      Actually, I didn’t realize they were giant testicles either — for about my first six months — until a friend pointed it out to me. They’re so huge that they become weirdly invisible because they’re beyond the boundaries of what we think of as standard representations of ‘big balls.’ Plus they’re just sitting out there in public for everyone to look at. A bit like the purloined letter, I suppose.

      And I do hope to make a visit to the east coast one of these days! I’m here in Japan until 2011, but after my return I’m thinking of taking a trip to the eastern seaboard since it’s an area that I feel I’ve massively neglected over the last decade or so.

  3. Nice keep up the good work. where can we subscribe to the site’s newletter?

    • 6 Trane DeVore

      There’s no “newsletter” for this site, but I do add a couple of posts a week. You can subscribe to the blog via RSS, or whatever service you use to keep track of the other websites you subscribe to.

  4. 7 heather

    One of Tom Robbin’s recent books was about a tanuki named Tanuki. “Villa Incognito”
    It is absolutely hilarious and full of mischief like all his books are. I did not imagine Tanuki looking like those tanuki sculptures though. very cute! Why does Japan create so many bizarre cute looking things?

    • 8 Trane DeVore

      I had no idea that Tom Robbins had a book with a tanuki in it. I’ll have to check it out!

  5. 9 heather

    Ah, yes the sculptures are a mythical depiction of the tanuki. Your photography is amazing btw. I am trying to decide if I should get a bessa t even though it is a bit old and has the viewfinder issue, so I have been looking at the bessa t flickr page alot lately. I have a chance to get an olive bessa t body.

    • 10 Trane DeVore

      The Bessa-T is a really fun camera to use, though it does take a bit of time to compose a shot until you get used to moving between the diopter and the viewfinder. The bodies are really cheap these days, however, so I think it’s not a bad idea to pick one up. And those olive bodies are the coolest.

      I hope you enjoy your Bessa!

  6. 11 Judy

    Nice article.
    Can I just point out that the tanuki doesn’t actually hold a sake bottle. It holds a tokkuri, into which sake would be decanted for drinking, and tokkuri reminds us of toku (virtue).

    • 12 Trane DeVore

      Thanks for that bit of clarification — I would never have thought of the connection between toku (徳) and tokkuri (徳利), but now that you point it out it seems obvious. Without knowing the pun I didn’t see any reason to use the more technical ‘tokkuri’ rather than ‘sake flask’ or ‘sake bottle,’ but if I were to rewrite the piece I’d definitely change it. ありがとうございます! 勉強になりました!


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