Is that a cat? A dog? A raccoon? No. No. And not quite.
Meet Tanuki—a mischievous darling of Japanese folklore and the star of our new PICA print. Being still quite an unknown character in the West, Tanuki is often misunderstood and misrepresented as the urban trash-diving scavenger, the raccoon.
Tanuki (狸 or たぬき) is in fact a raccoon dog. Despite its name, the animal, other than some facial spotting, has nothing in common with the raccoon or a badger (another popular mistranslation). Raccoon dog falls under the Canidae family of dogs, wolves, foxes, and coyotes. One big giveaway is the lack of the notorious black tail rings. Originally native to the far East, the species have travelled across Russia, and can now be spotted in some parts of Europe. Fun fact: unlike their canine cousins, raccoon dogs spend their winters in hibernation—snuggly cuddled up to their partners until the coming of the warmer days.
But enough about its National Geographic description. In Japan, when someone mentions Tanuki, it is not the actual raccoon dog that one conjures up in their mind. Tanuki also happens to be an adorable magical prankster that falls under a class of spirit monsters called yokai (妖怪, youkai, ghost, demon, or monster) in Japanese folklore. Referred to as bake-danuki (化け狸, supernatural tanuki), he is more of a mischievous jovial character in comparison to the more traditionally malevenous monsters of the yokai family. He can be at times frightening, but for the most part he is often portrayed as also having a good side to him, bringing good fortune and prosperity to those who form a relationship with him. He is fluffy, skillful at deception, carrying giant testicles that allow him to achieve extraordinary feats, but more on that later.
Tanuki is famous for his shape-shifting, illusion-casting abilities. It is said that Tanuki often disguises himself as a human in a form of a beautiful woman or at times a Buddhist monk, with the one purpose to misguide and trick the unsuspecting folk. These transformations are believed to be possible with a placement of a leaf on his head. It is also possible to catch Tanuki in disguise as he is believed to become luminous when transformed and can accidentally show his tail if he loses focus. Another tell is that in rainy weather the clothes of his illusion would remain dry. In folklore Tanuki is often discovered well after the fact, when he falls asleep and transforms back into his animal form.
Tanuki, a skillful shapeshifter, can disguise himself into just about anything in hopes of tricking yet another victim. There are a number of tales that talk about Tanuki shape-shifting into objects for monetary gain or just plain trickery.
Tanuki is a master of illusion. He can make leaves appear as money, only to be discovered after he is long gone, as well as create illusions of unfamiliar surroundings to confuse travelling folk causing them to get lost.
Tanuki also loves good ol’ pranks that don’t involve any supernatural abilities. Some of them are drumming on his belly to draw people away from their path in the woods, or making sounds to make people think they are hearing thunder and lightning to create confusion—all in the name of mischievous fun.
Tanuki is a popular cultural icon in traditional and modern creative works in Japan. He has been the main subject of many literary works, legends, and traditional Japanese works of art. Today you may notice a ceramic statue of Tanuki placed outside business establishments in Japan akin to maneki-neko, the lucky beckoning cat, drawing visitors to come in and spend their money. Frequently he is depicted, in a modern 20th-century take by Fujiwara Tetsuzo (藤原銕造), as a plump round-bellied animal with big eyes wearing a straw hat with a bottle of sake and a promissory note of unpaid bills (though these items can vary), sporting an engorged scrotum—most featured aspect in the traditional Tanuki artistic depictions.
So among the many magical abilities of Tanuki, the most memorable one must be the expanding scrotum. It is said that Tanuki can stretch his scrotum to the size of eight tatami mats—often pictured stretching for various creative feats and tasks, and never in terms of any sexual connotation. The concept is thought to have come from Kanazawa’s metal workers, who in the olden days would use the skin of tanuki testicles to wrap gold as an aid in creating the thinnest sheet of gold possible. One needed to use the skin that could stretch, and tanuki’s scrotum skin could stretch up to the size of eight tatami mats (approx. 13 square meters). Later people would make wallets and lucky charms out of the skin as it was believed it could stretch ones money as it did it with gold.
Another reason Tanuki gained fame with his scrotum is due to the connotation that came from phonetically similar terminology of ‘kin no tama’ (金の玉, balls of gold) and kintama (金玉) for testicles, popularly associated with prosperity and good fortune.
Our Tanuki print might not have visually depicted the money beckoning feature, but you can’t say it’s not there somewhere. Still, it is a G-rated symbol of fortune nonetheless. Or a symbol of staying young, playful and wild as we also like to think. And much like the raccoon dog waking up with the coming of spring, today we are introducing our Tanuki print as the new addition to our family of colourful wall art illustrations.
It’s a new season outside, so why not go ahead and brighten up your walls with some much needed colourful whimsical folklore magic.