Friday, July 8, 2011

The Tanuki in Japanese Culture

One of my favorite characters from Japanese folklore is the tanuki or raccoon-dog. The real animal, though superficially resembling a raccoon and often mistranslated as a badger, is actually a member of the dog family. It is a smallish, creature with a black mask around the eyes, short legs, a big, round belly and a very large scrotum. The animal does not exist in North America.

However, this post focuses on the tanuki in Japanese culture. This enigmatic creature features in many traditional folktales. Along with the fox, he is the Japanese trickster and prankster. And also like the fox, is a shape-shifter, often represented putting a leaf on top of his head to transform. One of the most famous stories is of a tanuki who disguises himself as a cast-iron teakettle. He is unwittingly bought by an old Buddhist priest, but when they put him over the fire, he sprouts a big bushy tail and legs and runs around. Later, he helps a kind man to make money by performing tricks. In the end he wishes to return to the temple and there remains as a teakettle. The tanuki is sometimes a playful prankster, but sometimes vicious and malevolent. In one older story, he kills an old man’s wife, cooks her into a soup and unknowingly serves her to the old man. He gets his just deserves at the end.

The tanuki is also represented in caricature in pottery. These pottery tanukis are traditionally seen in front of restaurants, traditional drinking establishments, and other businesses. He holds a sake flask in one hand and an account book in the other and has an extremely large scrotum, which is the source of his power. He is a symbol of good luck in business. However, these days these tanukis have become a kind of garden gnome, and are often seen in people’s yards and in front of the house. I have one myself nd I love it. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be bought at any home center. I’ve seen little girl tanukis with bows andI saw one in front of a golf driving range that was over 20 feet high!

The thing that really endeared the tanuki to me is the animated feature Pom Poko (1994) by Miyazaki Hayao, the director of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and the new Ponyo movie. It’s one of Miyazaki’s lesser known films, but one of the best. It’s an allegorical tale about a group of tanuki who live on a small mountain. But soon, humans come to develop the area to build houses and shops. The tanuki are desperate to save their home and at first try to sabatoge the construction. Later, with the help of others, they use all their magic to try to scare the people away, to no avail. In the end, three groups of tanuki deal with the change in their own way. One group of traditionalists can’t accept the change and can’t let go of the past and simply sail off to heaven(figurative suicide). Another group of younger aggressive tanuki try to fight back with violence and are all killed. The third group, grudgingly accept the change and adapt to their new world. They change into humans and enter society, but are still easily tired and must take the Japanese energy “genki” drinks. The movie is surprisingly deep. The tanuki really represent the Japanese people themselves and their desire to return to a simpler life in this modern world. It’s really worth watching. I hope this enigmatic prankster will win your heart too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a bear

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