A Tribute to Tanuki: Japan’s Magical Scrotumonster

We love Tanuki, Japan’s magical scrotumonster. Or more accurately, scrotum-monster. If you’re unfamiliar with Tanuki, the Japanese raccoon dog, perhaps you thought these ubiquitous character statues are just a weird thing we are into. Although in fairness, if you are familiar with Tanuki, there’s an even greater chance you thought it was a weird thing we’re into.

For the uninitiated, Tanuki is a real animal–the aforementioned Japanese raccoon dog. More importantly, Tanuki is a key figure in Asian folklore and art. He’s a magical, shapeshifting creature that is mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise, and throughout history has transformed from evil to benevolent. In the words of Al Gore (probably), Tanuki is half raccoon, half dog, half fox.

Oh, and Tanuki has giant scrotum with special powers that signify the ability to stretch money and bring good fortune. That’s right, Tanuki has huge balls with their own magical powers. If you follow Sarah or me on Instagram, you’ve probably seen the above critter in our stories, along with a slew of different odd hashtags expressing our affinity for Tanuki…

If you have not seen these, we post them pretty much daily when we’re in Japan. Here’s just a few of our Tanuki selfies from the last couple of years:

Now, I realize this is a family site that you all trust to educate and culture your children, but any conversation about Tanuki must encompass his scrotum, and that’s a tall order, because they’re so danged big.

If it assuages you, it should be noted that Tanuki’s mammoth scrotum is said to have nothing to do with his sexual prowess or proclivities.

Apparently, the Japanese term for ‘small ball of gold’ (kin no tama) is very close to a term for testicles (kintama), and there was confusion about this in creating in early representations of the character.

Japanese artists had so much fun depicting Tanuki’s testicles in various situations–including stretched out as a rescue parachute and lifeboat–that it just sort of stuck. (For further reading about Tanuki’s history, here’s a pretty comprehensive resource.)

I have no clue to what degree that origin story is accurate, but I love it.

I’ve always been a sucker for folklore, and there’s something especially delightful about the existence of legitimate works of art older than the United States depicting a raccoon dog using his scrotum to save lives.

It’s also quite amusing that no one in Japan, a sexually conservative country, bats an eye at the prevalence of Tanuki.

There are children’s songs about him (and his testicles), television commercials of Tanuki swinging his CGI balls, depictions of Tanuki making music by drumming on his large sack, ‘larger than life’ statues dotting almost every block in Kyoto, and a literal Tanuki Temple in Tokyo (the statue pictured below is from the temple).

Tanuki is so engrained in Japanese culture that he and his giant balls are just taken for granted. I can’t think of any analog in America.

I mean, it’s safe to make certain assumptions about Paul Bunyan, but that’s just something that we all tacitly understand, and no one talks about it.

Despite American media being among the most sexually suggestive in the world, the United States is still, at its core, fairly conservative about sexuality.

I doubt public depictions of Tanuki would ever be accepted in the U.S. due to his scrotum, and it wouldn’t even surprise me if some adults are taken aback by the photos and text in this post.

The beauty of Tanuki is that even though his features are very much overt, he’s innocent and pure. He symbolizes generosity, cheer, prosperity, and nothing even remotely sexual.

I’d hazard a guess this is part of why Tanuki is so popular–he’s a bringer of good fortune, but there’s also a certain understated stupidity to it all–he’s goofy, bizarre, and fun.

This is the basis for our enthusiasm of Tanuki. Although the tone here is tongue in cheek (how could it not be?), we find depictions of Tanuki, his folklore, and his prominence to be very interesting.

In ways, he seems at odds with Japanese culture, and in other ways, totally at home in it. I wouldn’t say we have reverence or respect for Tanuki; there’s an underlying sense of immaturity to our interest, but it’s also sincere. We find his place in Japanese traditions to be truly fascinating.

One day we were hiking in Ohara, a rural area in the mountains north of Kyoto. We passed by a small shop on the side of the trail selling Tanuki figures.

We always stop for this sort of thing, and were elated to find that a medium-sized Tanuki was only 2,000 yen. We had exactly 2,000 yen on us, which would’ve been perfect…had we not needed bus fare to get back to the city.

From that point on, we got serious about acquiring a Tanuki figure. It’s not that they were difficult to find–a number of shops in touristy areas of Kyoto carry them–it’s that we believed there must be a wholesale purveyor of Tanuki figures selling them for significantly cheaper prices than the stores in tourist districts.

My dream was to purchase a life-sized Tanuki figure. Since I have no clue how tall Tanuki is “in real life,” what I mean by that is one as tall as me. It’s totally impractical, I know, but I think it’d also be pretty awesome.

Logistically speaking, I’m not even sure how we would’ve gotten it home, but in the comical scenario I envision, Tanuki would’ve sat in an empty seat next to us on the return flight.

I knew we’d actually end up settling for a smaller one, but held out hope that somehow we’d find an gigantic one for an inexpensive price, and could have him shipped to us.

Suffice to say, we put a lot of effort and (too much) time into finding a Tanuki to adopt. I researched Japanese hardware, home improvement, and outdoor goods stores, and we visited several in Kyoto, all to no avail.

We also made a special trip to Kappabashi Street in Tokyo, where we did find a store specializing in Tanuki, but it was laughably overpriced.

Anyway, this story is entirely in past tense because we’ve completed our quest for Tanuki. One day while wandering in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, we decided to stop at Kotouen, a ceramics store we had passed many times before (in fact, there are a handful of photos of its life-size Tanukis in past posts here).

Previously, we had stopped in Kotouen but the prices of the giant Tanuki figures gave us sticker shock. Out of options, we decided to do a more thorough search this time. It turns out that Kotouen is actually a fairly reasonably priced shop with beautiful goods. (It’s located between Jojakkoji and Nisonin Temples–you’ll walk right past it during our 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary.)

After a bit of browsing, we found a smaller Tanuki that was reasonably priced–at least compared to prices we had seen in Tokyo, or even Gion and Higashiyama.

The price coupled with “adopting” our Tanuki from a shop with which we were familiar made it a no-brainer. We had to do it.

And so we did. It was really exciting, and the shopkeepers went to great lengths to build a custom box for our Tanuki so he would fit in our carry-on suitcase. (On the flight home, almost everything else in Sarah’s suitcase was relegated to a checked duffle.)

It was a joyous occasion, and we took turns carrying Tanuki all around Kyoto that day.

Our Tanuki lives on a shelf that’s also fittingly home to books about Kyoto and Japan. He is regularly joined for kinship by his brother, Yossarian the Cat.

And now you know about Tanuki and our obsession with the magical little guy more than any normal person should!

If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit! 

Your Thoughts

Have you seen Tanuki figures in Japan? Wondered what they were, or why they’re so popular? What do you think of this heroic little guy? How many Tanukis do you own? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

5 replies
  1. Ilona
    Ilona says:

    Wow I didn’t know this information about it. That’s so interesting! 😀 Thanks for this really nice blog.

    Reply
  2. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    All this tanuki talk and no mention of the great Isau Takahata film “Pom Poko”? That film is a fun ride. (Actually it looks like Comfort references the film above). Highly recommend. Love me some tanuki. Thanks for sharing your adoption journey!

    Reply
  3. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Has Yossarian knocked the Tanuki off the shelf yet? With most cats, I don’t think that would last a month. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    This post was scrotastic (scrotorrific?). I feel like all your posts have been leading to this and the circle is complete. Shut it down.
    Seriously though, I love these quirky folk creatures like this, and the kappa or the Lechuza.
    I remember watching a studio ghibli cartoon about tanukis, it was fun. Too bad all Mario did was turn into a stone statue, it seems like a real missed opportunity.
    Thanks.

    Reply

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