The plump and paddle-tailed tanuki, a native Japanese raccoon dog, are the original bad boys of Japan. Tanuki are a real animal, but they are more famous in their folkloric form, where they are reputed to be mischievous and fond of practical jokes. Sometimes they can be shape-shifters who can transform themselves into Buddhist monks or even objects like a teakettle in order to make humans appear stupid. Tanuki are famous for their love of soba buckwheat noodles, and even more famous for their love of sake rice wine. They are symbols of carefree overindulgence, or perhaps an invitation to overworked salarymen to drink their cares away.
If you’ve been to Japan you’ve undoubtedly seen large ceramic tanuki greeting patrons at the door to a bar or sake shop, or hiding behind some shrubbery in a garden. This tanuki greets hashioki shoppers outside the Ginza Natsuno shop in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. Or maybe you’ve sipped a sake cocktail at a Benihana restaurant in one of their tanuki-shaped mugs. Fans of Super Mario may remember that when Mario dons his “tanooki suit” he can fly, transform himself into a statue, or use his broad tail as a weapon.
This pair of hashioki depict a popular tanuki form. They are wearing the conical straw hat of a Buddhist pilgrim, and appear to be recovering from too much food and sake. They are each carrying an empty bottle of sake, an ema or prayer board inscribed with the kanji for tanuki, and a ledger book which supposedly lists how much money they have wasted on drink and other earthly pleasures. The two kanji on their ledger books identifies that they are from Yashima, a town on the Japanese island of Shikoku, which is renown for its tanuki folklore.
In addition to a distended stomach, some tanuki display a prominent scrotum or pair of testicles. A popular but naughty schoolyard chant recounts Tan-tan-tanuki no kintama wa, kaze mo nai no mi, bu-ra bura! which can be translated as “The tanuki’s balls! There isn’t any wind, but they swing and swing!” Appropriately for a mascot of salarymen, these oversized balls are considered a talisman that can bring financial luck.
Sometimes tanuki are shown in a more sedate pose, like this raccoon dog who is covering his private parts with a leaf, or these two seated examples, including the white one which bears a katakana inscription which reads guriru tanuki, which is probably the name of a restaurant called the Tanuki Grill.
This hashioki alludes to a Japanese folktale about a tanuki who has the shape-shifting ability to transform himself into a teapot. I like the look in his eyes that suggests we have caught him in mid-change. When the tanuki was caught in a trap a poor man found him and freed him, and the tanuki repaid his kindness by transforming into a teapot that– depending on the version — the poor man could either sell for money, or make money by charging people to see the teapot dance.
Whatever form they take, the presence of a tanuki hashioki on a dinner table is definitely a sign that a jolly meal is ahead — probably a meal that will be made even merrier with sake or other libations.
Note: another charming tanuki example is included in my post “Making more out of less” (March 2016).