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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Tanuki - Japan's raccoon dog

タヌキ

Racoon dogs, now also known as Asiatic raccoons, are called tanuki in Japan. There are five sub-species of raccoon dog, the Japanese one being  known as N. procyonoides viverrinus. Tanuki live in the wild, but are no strangers to areas of human habitation. (Tanuki can, however, be mistaken for the rarer anaguma (badger).)

Tanuki raccoon dog in Shigarakiyaki pottery, Yanaka, Tokyo.
Tanuki garden ornament, Tokyo.
However, the most commonly sighted tanuki in Japan are not of the furry variety, but of what could be called the garden variety, i.e., pottery figurines, believed to bring good luck. The tanuki in this photo was spied in a garden in Tokyo’s Yanaka, a district that retains a distinctly old world atmosphere typified by a traditional garden ornament like this one.

The tanuki is generally a figure of fun in Japan, partly because of its portly belly, and the male's testicles being always portrayed as huge. Yet this is a comparatively recent development, and up until the Kamakura and Muromachi eras, tales of the tanuki depicted it as something of a monster that ate people, thus the creature's full belly.

This depiction lives on somewhat in Japanese sayings and legends. The bakedanuki (“shape-changing raccoon dog”) is a supernatural figure in Japanese lore from way back, and even in today's parlance, a “tanuki” retains the sinister meaning of someone who is cunning and sly, who harbors nefarious plans while maintaining an impassive demeanor. tanuki ineiri ("tanuki nap") means feigning sleep, and tanuki gao ("tanuki face") means to feign ignorance.

The modern association with good luck comes partly from the rotundness of the tanuki's belly and scrotum, the latter being described as an "8-tatami-mat scrotum" (8 tatami mats = about 13 sq.m.). However, the "8-tatami-mat" reference actually comes from the area that one monme (about 3.75 g) of gold would cover when beaten out as gold leaf. A tanuki skin was traditionally used as the base on which the job was carried out. (Thus the saying “Counting your tanuki skins before you’ve caught any” (toranu tanuki no kawazanyo 取らぬたぬきの皮算用)  - the Japanese equivalent of counting your chickens before they have hatched.)

Nevertheless, this association with gold further enhanced the tanuki's good-luck status.

Pottery tanuki for the garden, as in the above photo, are typically rendered in Shigaraki pottery (shigarakiyaki). Shigaraki is an area in Shiga prefecture that is famous for its semi-glazed stoneware, and the tanuki is the archetypal Shigarakiyaki product.

Want a pottery tanuki for your garden? Inquire with the folks at GoodsFromJapan.


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Keywords
Japan
raccoon
tanuki
Yanaka
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