Popular Japanese souvenir: Tanuki Statue
Tanuki is a magical shape-shifting fox-like dog in Japanese mythology. It was originally portrayed as evil but has now evolved into a cute icon of wealth and luck.
Statues of tanuki can be found throughout Japan, in front of bars and restaurants, especially noodle shops. They are used to beckon customers and welcome guests, playing a role similar to that of the Maneki Neko, Japanese fortune cat. Many Japanese temples and homes also display tanuki statues.
There are many legends about the supernatural powers, mischiefs, and even sinister act of the tanuki. Popular folk tales include Kachi-kachi Yama, Bunbuku Chagama, The Writing of Tanuki, The Belly-Beating of the Tanuki, The Tanuki and the White Snake, The Tanuki Song, and The Procession of the Tanuki.
Origins and evolution
The mythological tanuki was a composite creature of Chinese fox lore and Japanese accretions.
Originated from Chinese fox lore, it was depicted as an evil and mischievous animal trickster. It was introduced to Japan between the 4th-7th centuries CE.
It was only in the 18th century that a big belly, belly drumming, gigantic scrotum, and sake (Japanese alcohol) flask were added to its image, creating a tamer look for the evil rogue.
In Japanese slang, the scrotum is known as ‘Kinbukuro’ or ‘money bag’. Tanuki’s large scrotum, therefore, does not signify sexual indulgences but rather “luck with money”.
Initially, the tanuki sculpture was primarily used as a good fortune charm. However, in the late 19th century, it was also used to identify noodle shops that served a particular noodle dish.
The sculpture was first used by a famous soba shop (near Tanuki Bridge in Tokyo) that created the new dish, Tanuki Soba Noodle. When tanuki soba became very popular throughout Japan, other soba shops also displayed a tanuki statue outside their shops, as an indication that they too sell this specific dish.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, tanuki was commercialized with Japanese artwork showing it wearing a straw hat and holding a promissory note, in addition to its tamer image mentioned earlier.
Tanuki was rid of all its bad and frightening attributes and became the modern-day icon of generosity, cheer, and prosperity.
Tanuki is usually portrayed as having big round eyes, wearing a straw hat, carrying a bottle of sake on one paw, and a promissory note on the other. It has a big belly and a tail. Its happy smiling face has a goofy expression.
A unique characteristic of tanuki is its extremely huge scrotum that dangles down to the ground. Sometimes, it is shown as having its super-size scrotum flung over its back like a traveller’s pack, or using it as a drum.
This feature is sometimes omitted in contemporary sculpture and art. Instead of drumming on its scrotum, the tanuki may be depicted as drumming on its belly, particularly in contemporary art.
Eight virtues of tanuki
In the course of commercialization, tanuki’s traditional traits were co-opted and reformulated into a new commercial paradigm called Tanuki's Eight Virtues, Tanuki's Eight Blessings, or Tanuki's Eight Good Omens.
The eight virtues are as follows:
· Straw hat – symbolizes the virtue of readiness. Prepared for inclement weather, bad luck or unexpected trouble.
· Big belly – symbolizes the virtue of level-headedness. Calm, bold and decisive.
· Tail – symbolizes unflinching determination and perseverance until success is achieved. Can also mean “to cast aside self-interest”.
· Promissory note – symbolizes sincerity, honesty, and truthfulness; gaining the trust and confidence of others.
· Big, round eyes – symbolizes ability to clearly perceive the situation and make a right decision.
· Happy smiling face – symbolizes graciousness, kindness, and welcoming attitude; also mean cheerful and good-natured.
· Sake flask – symbolizes gratitude and thankfulness for one’s daily meals, and also the merits of eating or drinking in moderation to ensure a long life. Can also signify the pursuit of a virtuous, principled, and honourable life style.
· Giant scrotum (or kinbuburo) – Kinbuburo is a Japanese slang, meaning ‘money bag or sack’. Symbolizes financial luck.
Movie on Tanuki
An animated film on tanuki, produced in 1994 in Japan.
Shigaraki and Tanuki Day
In November 1951, Emperor Hirohito visited Shigaraki, a small town famous for making pottery. The people welcomed him with a special row of flag-waving tanuki statues. Delighted, the Emperor wrote a poem on tanuki. The media publicized the story, resulting in a surge in popularity of the pudgy ceramic statue.
As a symbol of good luck and fortune, tanuki statues are placed at the entrances to bars and restaurants to bring business success and prosperity. Shigaraki has designated 8 November to be the Tanuki Day for all tanuki statues to rest and relax.
It is, indeed, a very interesting scene on Tanuki Day. Tanuki statues all over town could be seen resting and playing. To symbolize certain statues being asleep, special stickers were affixed to their eyes while others wore eye masks. The rest of them celebrated by having special baths, drinking alcohol, playing sports, or picnicking under the trees. Some can even be seen in beach attire, with suitcases next to them.
The owners of tanuki statues come out with all sorts of ideas to help their cute wealth-bringers to relax and enjoy their day off once a year.
The tanuki is synonymous with Shigaraki.
Tanuki products are available in many forms: figurine, bakery goods, cartoons, comic book, cell-phone strap, key chain, movie, statue and so forth.
It is considered auspicious to have this lovable icon of luck and wealth in one’s home or office.
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