See this tanuki? Aren’t his balls cute? Welcome to Japan, where raccoon-dog genitals are universally admired.
The tanuki, or “racoon dog,” isn’t actually related to the racoon at all, but is related to the dog falling somewhere between a wolf and a fox.
▼ Although tanuki are often mistaken for racoons or badgers, they’re not related to either.
The tanuki has garnered a special place in Japanese folklore. They’re a popular yokai spirit of the forest (featured in Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko and in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 3) and like the tengu and fox, he is a henge creature (shapeshifter), who can change himself into other things, animate or inanimate. While he used to be seen as an evil creature, over the years the mammal’s image has changed to that of a fun-loving trickster. He would definitely be a proponent of April Fools’ Day.
▼Beware the tanukibozu—not a real Buddhist priest!
Tanuki sweets can be found all around Japan, although not as readily available as they once were. Find out where you can still gormandize these cute iconic cakes by checking out the Tanuki Habitat Map.
The woodland animal is also nocturnal, so they are not often seen during the day, which adds to their mystique. I’ve only seen them a couple of times myself, once on Sensuijima, an island in the Inland Sea, where one clever tanuki figured out he could get hand-outs from tourists and so would make an appearance every day at lunchtime. The other instance was in Miyajima, also in the Inland Sea, where a family of white tanuki regularly comes out for a nighttime eating binge at garbage cans on the shopping street.
In addition to foraging for human food, these omnivores are inclined to tipple. The ubiquitous ceramic representations of the creatures that dot the archipelago give us insight into this behavior. Look closely and you’ll notice each is carrying a sake bottle.
▼ “The family that drinks together, stays together,” by David A. LaSpina. Even the little one has his own vessel.
Japanese people sometimes display a tanuki statue outside their house or in the garden, while restaurants and pubs often have near human-size effigies at the entrances to their establishments (okonomiyaki chain Dotonbori always has one by the door). I’ve noticed the tanuki is rarely let inside these places, however. That’s probably because the sake swilling creatures are known for not paying their bills! Notice the tanuki carries an I.O.U. in his other hand.
Tanuki are almost always pictured with giant testicles…
… and man-boobs.
But before we get into the more famous testicular aspects of the tanuki, you’re probably wondering what my qualifications are for analyzing such matters. While I cannot claim to be an expert in kintama (testicles—tanuki or otherwise), I have taken part in a bit of animal gonad tourism. So I’ll share with you some of my observations.
Take this Cambodian bull, for example.
▼ You’d expect this guy to have big testicles, right?
▼ But, meh! Not so big.
On the other hand, you’d think an Australian ram would have smaller testicles than a Cambodian bull, right?
▼ Big Ram sculpture in Goulburn, Australia
So, I’d say there is nothing odd about the scrotal dimensions of the tanuki. Nope, nothing strange at all!
These smile-producing nuts were added to the statues by Tetsuzo Fujiwara, a potter in Koga, Shiga Prefecture in 1934. He also added the sake flask and ta-da! we now have a testicled, alcohol-loving tanuki.
▼ Tanuki statue at Koga
Notice that unlike the Big Ram statue in Australia, in Koga they have chosen to keep their monolith’s testicles well above ground. This must be a safety feature. If those balls hit someone, it could kill them—a testicular homicide.
As unlikely an event as it may seem, there is a famous Japanese children’s song that talks about the tanuki’s genitalia a swingin,’ even when there is no wind. You can listen to it (and learn the words!) here:
Not only does the tanuki tend to brandish his kogan (another word for kintama), he also drums his stomach. Tanukibayashi describes the phenomenon of using his large belly as a drum, especially under the full moon. This is a ploy to trick night travelers into thinking there is a festival or event going on nearby. But just as the person stops to listen more closely, the drumming fades away. Naughty tanuki!
Bags of fortune
So how is it that, despite their rather slovenly and bibulous ways hanging out at the door to taverns and not paying their bills, that the racoon dog’s dangly parts have become symbols of wealth and financial good luck? Glad you asked!
In order to explain this, you have to first understand a thing or two about tanuki scrotum (inno in Japanese, just in case you were wondering–and I know you were). Taking a gander at Japanese tanuki scrotum art, (yes, it’s a real thing), and we can see that the large undercarriage of the animal is well-documented.
▼ The magical elastic powers of a racoon dog’s scrotum as depicted by this woodblock print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Whoa!
In fact, the above display of pandiculation is based on the fact that goldsmiths used to wrap gold nuggets in tanuki scrota to make gold leaf. The skin was so durable, and stretchable, that the gold could be pounded into “the size of eight tatami mats.” How’s that for testicle statistics!
Tanuki are said to be mischievous, as you’d expect an animals with ground-dragging genitalia to be. But when it comes to their sex lives, you may be a bit surprised at how mundane they are. Female tanuki are not, apparently, that impressed with their partner’s giant nuts.
In the wild, they are monogamous, although in captivity the male can mate with up to five partners (humans, take notice). Maturity for the young’uns is reached at eight to 10 months. While that may seem rather fast, the fecundity rate is much less than, say, rabbits because female tanuki must go into heat to conceive (unlike rabbits) and they reach sexual maturity later (rabbits can reproduce as early as three months). Tanuki also aren’t amorous year-round, preferring to pair up in autumn (perhaps during the harvest moon when they can drum on their bellies). Pregnancy, however, doesn’t happen until spring with the first litter of six to seven tanuki pups to be expected about 65 days later (unlike rabbits, which gestate after just 30 days).
▼ Altogether now, 1-2-3: Awwwwwwww, such a cute couple!
The male helps raise the young, however, and he brings his partner food when she’s pregnant–probably take-out from the local garbage can.
It’s no wonder that father tanuki goes out on drinking binges in town—there’s a lot of time in-between mating. And what does Mrs. Tanuki do all that time? Presumably, she pays all those promissory notes.
Top image: Wikipedia/Namazu-tron (edited by RocketNews24)