Tanuki: The Raccoon Dog of Fortune

The tanuki (狸 or たぬき), often translated as Japanese “raccoon dog” (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is a mammal native to Asia and a very important creature in Japanese folklore. In tales and legends, it is shown as a strange and supernatural creature which often deceives the protagonists of the story.

However, the image of tanuki nowadays it is rather comical, because it is characterized by a big belly and huge testicles. In addition, he wears a straw hat that protects him from bad luck, as well as an account book and a bottle of sake. All of them symbols of prosperity in business.

This is precisely the reason why today it is common to find small figures of tanuki at the entrance of restaurants, bars and izakaya and also in some private houses, calling luck and fortune.

sculptures of tanuki outside restaurants and bars in Japan

Tanuki in tales and legends

The tanuki It appears in many Japanese legends and traditional tales representing an animal with magical powers. Thus, it is part of a group of creatures and supernatural beings of Japanese folklore that receive the collective name of yōkai.

In this way, the real animal exists (as we said, the Japanese raccoon dog), while the yōkai or creature of Japanese folklore is called bake-tanuki or “spooky tanuki.”

This mythological animal is represented as a strange and supernatural animal, with magical powers similar to those of the fox, whose main fun is to deceive the main characters. Thus, in Japanese folklore, the bake-tanuki he often shapeshifts or impersonates human to trick or laugh at the protagonists. Of course, although he is somewhat mischievous, mocking and mischievous, he is always shown as a good-natured and quite naive animal. An animal that also likes to eat and drink and be lazy scratching its belly.

There are many legends about bake-tanuki all over Japan. The three bake-tanuki More popular (you know the weakness that the Japanese have for lists of three elements) are that of the sado island (“Danzaburou-danuki”), Takamatsu City (“Yashima no Hage tanuki”), and Awaji Island (“Shibaemon-tanuki”).

Other well-known tales in which you can find these animals as protagonists are «Kachi-Kachi Yama» and «Bunbuku Chagama».

(Mini)Eric with a huge tanuki figurine in Higashiyama, Kyoto
(Mini)Eric with a huge tanuki figurine in Higashiyama, Kyoto

wealth symbol

One of the most surprising aspects of the graphic representations of the tanuki from the Edo period (more realistic) to the present day (with an unrealistic statuette, let’s face it) is the disproportionate size of his scrotum.

Actually, biologically speaking, it is true that the scrotum of men tanuki it is quite big. In fact, historically it has been used in goldsmithing to work gold, since they are very resistant and elastic and allow the precious metal to be worked with ease.

Hence the scrotum of the tanuki began to be seen as a wealth symbol (allowed to “stretch the gold”). It was then that it began to be marketed as amulet of prosperityin addition to appearing in many drawings by artists of the Edo period.

In fact, in Japan, large testicles are not a symbol of sexual potency. On the contrary, they are a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Something easy to understand if you know Japanese, because “testicles” is kintama (金玉), which literally means “golden balls”.

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Tanuki lifting weights with his huge testicles from the series by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Current tanuki figurines

It was in the Taisho period (1912-1926) when the current ceramic figurine was designed, which is so common today in any Japanese city. The figure began to become popular among restaurant and bar owners to attract customers, given the relationship between wealth and the large testicles of the tanuki. And although this relationship between wealth and scrotum goes back a long way, the rest of the elements of his current image are more recent additions.

Today, the typical image of tanuki embodies eight virtues that ensure prosperity and fortune. And despite the fact that these details give it a comical and fun air, the figure has great symbolism as japanese amulet or engimono. The eight virtues are represented as follows:

  1. A straw hat that protects it from bad weather and bad luck.
  2. wide open eyes to see everything well and make good decisions.
  3. A sake bottlewhich represents virtue.
  4. A long tail that gives you stability and strength to achieve success.
  5. Some huge testicles symbolizing fortune in money and business.
  6. A account book which represents trust.
  7. A big belly symbolizing tranquility and calm.
  8. A nice smile That represents good customer service.
Daruma, maneki-neko, and tanuki for sale at a stall at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine
Daruma, maneki-neko, and tanuki for sale at a stall at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine

Highlights for your trip

A walk through any Japanese city will allow you to see these figurines almost anywhere. But next, we want to highlight some places related to the image of the tanuki that we encourage you to visit on your next trip to Japan.

Below you will find some ideas for a luxury lunch (or dinner) in Japan. Believe it or not, not all of them involve a large outlay of money, moreover.

Tanuki in Shigaraki

Shigaraki (Koka)

The small town of Shigaraki (in the city of Koka) not only gives its name to one of the oldest ceramics in Japan. It is also the ideal place to see how the sympathetic tanuki and buy some figurine.

Tanuki sculptures in Kisarazu

Kisarazu (Chiba)

Just outside of Tokyo, it is known for a lullaby related to the tanuki which became very popular in Japan. The lullaby is called “The Story of the tanuki of the Shojoji temple. Thanks to her, the city has dozens of tanuki through its streets… even in manhole covers!

Kachi-Kachi Ropeway

Kawaguchiko (Mount Fuji)

In the cable car that goes up to Mount Tenjo and on its top it is believed that the story of the popular tale takes place Kachi-Kachi Yama. That’s why everything is decorated with tanuki and rabbits that tell you the famous story. And on top of that you have great views of Mount Fuji.

Tanuki at Sagano tourist train stations

Arashiyama (Kyoto)

In Arashiyama there are two interesting places for fans of the tanuki. The Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Templewith several sculptures of tanuki playing all kinds of sports (we discovered it on our Discord, thanks Xavier!). And the Sagano scenic trainwith several stations with decorations of tanukisuch as Hozukyo Station or Kameoka Station.

Tanukidani Fudoin Temple

Tanukidani-san Fudō-in Temple (Kyoto)

Although this temple north of Higashiyama is famous for its wooden balcony reminiscent of the Kiyomizudera and his relationship with Miyamoto Musashi (who used his waterfall during his training), he has a huge collection of figures from tanuki that decorate the access road to the complex.

Tanuki at Yashima Shrine

Yashima Shrine (Takamatsu)

Yashima Shrine (Shikoku Pilgrimage No. 84) has statues of tanuki famous throughout Japan. This is because the temple appears in the aforementioned story “Yashima no Hage tanuki”. The character also appears in the film Pompoko by Studio Ghibli.

Sanctuary of the tanukis in Pontocho

Pontocho (Kyoto)

In the geisha neighborhood of Pontocho there is a small shrine dedicated to the tanuki. In 1978 there was a fire in the place, but in the exact place where the fire stopped, a statuette of tanuki shattered by the heat of the fire.

Finally, in restaurants across Japan, you’ll find two noodle dishes (both udon What soba) with an interesting name. On one side you have “tanuki udon/soba” (raccoon dog noodles) and on the other side you have “kitsune udon/soba” (literally fox noodles). Don’t worry, because none of them have raccoon dog meat or fox meat. They are simply the names of these dishes.

The difference is that the tanuki udon either tanuki-soba carries tenkasu (the remnants of fried dough left in the oil when you make tempura). Meanwhile, the kitsune udon either kitsube soba carries abura-age (fried tofu).

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Tanuki udon (© Canva)

Enjoy the tanuki during your trip to Japan!

Bibliography and sources used

This post is the result of collaboration with Lexus of Japonismo.

Tanuki: The Raccoon Dog of Fortune – Japonisme