The Folklore of Japan's Trickster

Book Cover: Tanuki
Editions:Kindle: $ 0.99
ISBN: B018FITG6M
Pages: 50

Once a vicious creature, the tanuki changed into a comical creature loved by Japanese children. He is the master of disguise. If only his intelligence was as sharp. Powered by his super stretchy scrotum, the tanuki leads us into a strange world of belly thumping, singing, and pranks.

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Introduction. A Badger by Any Other Name.

I know the way out is around here somewhere, Hideo thinks.

Crows argue, and the sun’s last fingers stretch through the woods. Brambles beckon, and forsaken trails tangle. Hideo shifts the firewood straining his back and trudges through the undergrowth. He frowns at a boulder and swallows acid nerves. The moss slithers up the north side. Or is it the east side? Suddenly singing and the sound of drums vibrate the air. The drums sound like those from the temple near my village. Maybe I am not lost!

He rushes toward the sound, not caring about the firewood that escapes his bundle. The baritones and rhythm thump louder as he gets closer. Trees and undergrowth give way to a clearing, and Hideo gasps.

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In the clearing dances the strangest group of creatures. Brown fur strains against great round bellies, and pointed black noses stand out from faces patterned after a raccoon. One of the creatures whacks his portliness with gusto and rhythm even professional drummers would envy. Around the drummer dance and sing more of his kind. Hideo had no doubts about the gender of the strange animals. Their massive male sacks remind Hideo of bags filled with damp rice. But despite their bellies and pouches, they dance with agility and grace.

Hideo stumbles back, praying they didn’t see him. A single thought bubbles out of his fear: Tanuki!

Japan's fondness for the rotund and lazy tanuki has roots in the distant past. The buffoon first appears in an 8th century collection of stories. In the first account, the tanuki shape-shifts into a man for a day on the second month of the 35th year of Empress Suiko’s reign (around 627 AD). The tanuki also appears in a law dating from the 8th century. The law comes from an older Chinese law that focuses on smoking foxes out of graves. The law connects both foxes and tanuki with tombs—the spirit world.  It outlines degrees of punishment:

"All  those  who  dig  up the  earth  and  take  out  the  corpses of  men  without  burying them again, and  who  smoke  foxes  or badgers  out  of graves, or  burn  the  coffins,  (shall  be  punished with)  one hundred blows with  the  stick.  Those who  burn corpses, with  transportation for  one year;  but,  if  they  belong to  the  fifth or higher  ranks, their  punishment shall  be  two  degrees  heavier, and  if they are people of  low  standing,  or  children, it  shall  be diminished  by two  degrees.  If  children  or  grand-children smoke foxes  or  badgers out  of  the  grave of  a  grand-father, father  or mother,  and  if  the  inmates  of  a  house  do  the  same  at  the  grave of  the  master  of  the  house,  (their  punishment shall  be) transportation for  one year; if  they  burn  the  coffin, the  same  for  two years, and  if  they  burn  the  corpse, then  for  three  years."

The third appearance of the tanuki has the animal singing to people in its true, animal form. Stories of the tanuki describe him as a lazy shape-shifter that loves pranks and dancing. He also enjoys thumping his giant stomach like a drum. The tanuki’s distinctive feature is his scrotum. His male pouch turns out to be the source of the tanuki’s shape-changing abilities. We will look at this trait in depth in Chapter 3.

Did you notice how the law speaks of a badger? When tanuki first appeared, they were known as badgers. Soon after this appearance, he disappears from Japanese literature. The tanuki is a chimera. Two different folklore animals compose him. The badger is the oldest, but he is also the least developed. The badger hibernated for 1,000 years.  By the time he reappeared in literature, the raccoon dog had taken his place. Different regions in Japan call the badger and raccoon dog by interchangeable names. One area would call the badger mujina and another would call the same badger a tanuki. Eventually, people used tanuki across most regions. The true tanuki, the raccoon dog, first appears in literature in the 13th century with the following story:

A holy man, who lived in a mountain for many years, was often visited by a hunter, who had a great veneration for him and always brought him food.  One day the saint told the hunter that Fugen Bosatsu came night  after  night as a sign of the efficacy of his (the saint's) prayers.  The hunter, who was curious to see this miracle, stayed there hoping to see it, and in the middle of the night the Bodhisattva really, appeared, seated on his white elephant.  The devout hermit wept and worshipped, but the hunter, who thought it queer that such a divine apparition should be visible even to the eyes of common people like him- self and the young servant of the hermit, decided to put it to the .test.  From behind the praying saint he shot an arrow in the direction of Fugen, and lo! The glorious Bodhisattva disappeared at once and there was a sound as of something tumbling down into the valley.  The next day they found a big tanuki with the arrow in its dead body.  The good hermit had been deceived by this animal because he lacked knowledge, and the hunter by means of reflection discovered the trick.

As folklore animals go, the tanuki has a short history. He has only about 800 years of storytelling. While this appears to be a long time, oral stories take a long time to develop and spread. In contrast, the tanuki’s rival, the famous Japanese fox, can trace her stories back to 333 BC in China. That is over 2,200 years of fox stories. To be fair, the tanuki inherits many of his traits from these old Chinese fox-stories. But he doesn't become a distinctive entity until the 8th century. Because of this, I consider the 8th century the tanuki’s birth. This is rather generous because the badger, rather than the tanuki, appears in the text. His hibernation until the 13th century prevents him from developing the same richness, impact, and variety of the Japanese fox stories. Some may even consider the 13th century the actual birth of the tanuki.

The tanuki suffers from typecasting. He is a comedian and a buffoon. His stories lack the depth the fox enjoys, but he fills his niche well. His role as a comedian makes people’s fears less frightening, and they help us to understand what concerned people in the past. Folklore preserves what conventional histories ignore.[8]

When people say tanuki, they have the raccoon dog in mind. When the badger awoke from his slumber in the 18th century, he discovered his place in folklore was forgotten. His stories merged with the raccoon dog. The badger and the raccoon dog share a love for drumming stomachs, dancing, singing, and playing pranks. The behavior of raccoon dogs and badgers underwrites tanuki stories. Folklore builds on observations from the real world. For example, raccoon dogs and badgers often share dens. An animal known as a shape-shifter could easily disguise himself as a badger or a raccoon dog. Stories call the tanuki lazy because the raccoon dog and the badger hibernate through the winter.

The Japanese badger is smaller than the European badger. Females own territory while nocturnal male badgers roam. Unlike the Japanese fox, badgers don’t form pair-bonds. Female badgers forage for food during the day, and both genders do little during the winter.

Raccoon dogs, or tanuki, are not related to badgers. Despite the raccoon-like markings and often being called "Asian raccoons", they are not related. Raccoon dogs come from the same family as foxes, wolves, and dogs. But the tanuki doesn’t behave like a dog. He climbs trees, eats fruit during autumn, and hibernates during winter. He roams suburbs and fields. Like many animals in folklore, the tanuki lives on the border of the human world and the animal world. Animals that exist in this gray area, like the Japanese fox, appear mysterious because they share attributes of both worlds. They are animals, but they are also adept at navigating the human world. They represent the mysterious forces of nature and poke fun at human culture. Because of their animal nature, tanuki cannot fully behave in human society. There are many aspects of culture that he doesn’t understand. Whereas this led to tragedy for the fox, this misunderstanding made tanuki stories funny.

Many of us in the West think Japanese culture austere. Japanese culture features a social hierarchy Westerners sometimes view as oppressive. For example, men in modern Japan share senpai-kohai relationships. A senpai is someone who has more experience or rank. A kohai is the senpai’s subordinate. Etiquette requires certain verbal structures based on this relationship. The kohai needs to submit to the senpai’s judgment. These rules seem to preclude laughter, but Yanagita Kunio, Japan's most important folklore expert, sets us straight: "the Japanese are people who laugh a lot". Tanuki stories contain dark humor and light-hearted antics that belie the view of Japanese austerity. Japanese humor sometimes feels strange to Westerners. But it is really not that different. Western humor has its strangeness. The focus on sarcasm in the United States, for example, is strange for many people. It relies heavily on insinuation and shared understanding. Without that understanding, sarcastic jokes fall flat. Whereas tanuki antics have more universal appear. They focus on shared experiences: being lost and misidentifying someone, to name a few.

Tanuki also represent traditional rural life. This becomes important as Japan industrialized at the turn of the 20th century.  The tanuki becomes a "visceral reminder of a place, and a way of being, already no longer possible" in a world driven by modernization. Tanuki live in forests and fields. They remind us of what nature was like before the invention of artificial lighting and motorized travel. Dark forests were places where creatures lurked to lead you astray. It is difficult to appreciate the mystery and danger that surrounded forests in an age before GPS and science. They were places to fear. They were places were wild animals and bandits lurked. Tanuki comedic antics helped people laugh at what they feared. The tanuki was sometimes captured and treated to a party in order to keep the tanuki’s favor, just in case people in a village needed to travel. Again, these practices help ease rural fears. In December 1939, Japan Chronicle records such an event:

Thanks  to  the  fervent  animal worship of  a group of villagers a badger which  was captured  by  riparian workers along  the Kanzaki  River  near  Osaka  on Wednesday  has  been given its freedom  after having been  treated  to  a  feast  of  delicacies  and sake.-The  workers spied  the  animal among the  rushes  on  one of  the  river  banks  and  after  a  brief  chase managed  to capture it. Meanwhile,  however,  Shigetaro  Sasaki, Kane Tsuji, Tsuki  Kino- shita  and  a  number  of  others  who  are  firm  believers  in  a super- stition regarding  animals,  particularly  badgers, heard  about  the incident  and  offered  the  men  ¥12 for  the  animal. Taking it  home they held  a "badger festival"  to  which they  summoned  three Buddhist priests and  then gave the  animal  a  feast including sake. While  the  festival  was  at  its height, a  man  from  Osaka approached them  and  offered  ¥50  for  the  animal  but  the  men  refused  and allowed  it  to regain its  freedom  after  another  drink  of  sake.- A story  is prevalent  in  the  district  to  the  effect  that  a  man  who once spared  the  life  of  a badger  many  years  ago is  now living in luxury.

The word tanuki originates from the cat-like behavior of the raccoon dog. It comes from three different phrases, depending on which region you are in. Tanuki translates to “rice-field-spook”. Some regions use the word taneko or “rice-field-cat”. The raccoon dog is also known as a “field cat”, and to confuse things further house cats are called “house-tanuki.” Tanuki enjoy this confusion. It plays into their love for pranks. People can't even pin a name or shape to them. Badgers and dogs are called field cats. House cats who are called badgers or raccoon dogs.

By the time the tanuki and badger merged into a single folk-animal, people viewed him as a buffoon or a clown. Tanuki love music and competition. Combine this with his lack of intelligence and you end with a funny but gruesome result.

One day two bored tanuki decided to challenge each other to a music competition. They wanted to see who could sing and drum the loudest. So they inflated their great bellies with air and began to drum:

Teketon-teketon-teketon-

Dokodon-dokodon-dokodon…

They opened their mouths and began to sing, making their drumming quiet as their bellies deflated.

Pom-poko pom. Pom-poko sho.

"I am the louder drummer," one tanuki said.

"No. I am! You sing like a fox."

The first tanuki shook with anger at the insult. Everyone knew how poor foxes sang. All they do is bark! "I'll show you!" He sucked in so much air his belly threatened to tear his fur. He thumped his stomach, shaking the trees with its deep bass.

"You call that a drum? I'll show you!" The second tanuki inflated his stomach.

The two silly tanuki continued to inflate their stomachs and drum. Bigger and bigger. The trees and ground shook with their drumming until they both their bellies burst.

The stupidity of tanuki lets people and other animals trick them easily. While not all tanuki are idiots, even the smart ones over-estimate how smart they are.  Many fellow animals trick the trickster such as the quail in the following story:

The quail and the badger once happened to meet on the road. “Today I’d like to show you a nobleman’s procession; how about changing yourself into a roadside stake?” proposed the quail.

The badger agreed and transformed himself into a roadside stake. He stood stiffly by the side of the road, while the quail haughtily sat on his head. Soon a tall palanquin bearer came by, carrying a six-shaku-long pole over his shoulder. The palanquin bearer passed by the strange-looking figure of the badger and quail but the quail paid no attention and made no move to fly away.

“What an impudent bird you are,” cried the bearer and raising his pole, he struck the quail who was still sitting on the head of the disguised badger. Just at that moment the quail hopped lightly away. When the bearer saw this he laughed but the badger become very angry.

“You told me that you were going to show me a nobleman’s procession and had me transform myself into a roadside stake. Because of that I get beaten, but you just fly off and pay no attention.” Saying this, the badger pounced on the quail and caught him in his mouth.

The quail, caught fast in the badger’s mouth, could not move. “Ah, my poor mother if you eat me up like this, I cannot give her a last farewell. Please, will you call her for me?”

“All right,” said the badger, “I’ll call once,” and raising his voice, he called the quail’s other. As soon as the badger opened his mouth to call the quail flew out and escaped. The badger became angry again and grabbed the quail’s tail. The quail knew that if he didn’t not escape this time, he would lose his life and so he pulled with all his might and finally pulled his tail off. And this is way to this day the quail has no tail.

The tanuki's lack of intelligence gives him charm and provides almost endless jokes. But the tanuki isn't always funny. Sometimes he is vengeful and even terrifying.

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