Tanuki no Kintama – Tanuki’s Giant Balls

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tanuki_Big_Balls

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Japan Times, OnMark Productions, and Kaii Yokai Densho Database

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Who’s got big balls? Tanuki have big balls! Anyone who has seen Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pom Poko) knows that tanukis’ nut sacks are capable of amazing magical feats—from being stretched out into giant tarpaulins to transforming into magical treasure ships. And the Japanese people aren’t shy about their love for tanukis’ giant balls; images of well-endowed tanuki can be seen all over Japan, from ubiquitous statues in from of shops and restaurants to bank commercials to anime to … pretty much anything.

Pom Poko Tanuki Balls Parachute

What Does Tanuki no Kintama Mean?

Tanuki (狸) gets mistranslated into English as all sorts of things, mostly badger or raccoon or the neologism “raccoon dog.” None of these really fit. Badgers (穴熊; anaguma) and raccoons (洗熊; araiguma) have their own Japanese names. “Raccoon dog” doesn’t really mean anything, so I personally just like sticking with the Japanese name—tanuki works better than anything else.

Now those giant balls …

Utagawa Giant Tanuki Balls

The common Japanese word for testicles is kintama (金玉), which translates literally as “golden” (金; kin) + “balls” (玉; tama). In Japan, large testicles (or a large scrotum, to be precise. It’s the nut sack, not what’s in it that matters.) are a symbol of wealth and prosperity, not sexual prowess. An alternate name, kinbukuro (金袋; money bags), makes the connection even stronger. Even more so when you consider that tanuki scrotums were once sewn into wallets and carried as literal “money bags.”

And while kintama might just be slang, in the tanuki’s case these “golden balls” have a historical precedence.

Traits of the Tanuki

Utagagwa Tanuki Balls Raincoats

As yokai, tanuki are known to have several magical powers and interesting traits. They are henge, shape-shifters, with abilities on par with and sometimes even exceeding those of kitsune (foxes), the most powerful of Japan’s magical animals. Tanuki are also famous for their belly drums (See the Belly Beating of the Tanuki) and their love of sake, food, and generally being the lazy, loafing tricksters of Japanese folklore. And their giant balls.

But they weren’t always like this. The familiar tanuki that we know today—with the prodigious belly, straw rain hat, sake bottle, and pendulous testacles—is a relatively modern invention. It actually comes from the 20th century.

Early depictions of tanuki show a realistic animal. Japanese tests are almost completely mum on tanuki for most of history. There is mention of the mujina (狢), a mythical animal associated with the tanuki in some areas, from around the 8th century.

nichibunken tanuki

Tanuki appeared in early encyclopedia starting from the 1600s, like the 1666 Kinmōzui ( 訓蒙図彙; Collected Illustrations to Instruct the Unenlightened) by Nakamura Tekisai (中村惕斎). These early works are only collections of animals, and rarely mention tanukis’ supernatural powers. One of the earliest mentions of a tanuki as a magical creature comes from the Wakan Sansai-zue (和漢三才図会; Illustrated Sino-Japanese Encyclopedia) compiled by Terajima Ryōan (寺島良安), a doctor from Osaka. The tanuki entry does not go into detail, but states that “like a kitsune (fox), an old tanuki will often transform into a yokai.”

Tanuki_Encyclopedia

Toriyama Sekien (鳥山石燕) included tanuki in his 1776 Gazu Hyakkiyakō (画図百鬼夜行; Illustrated Night Parade of 100 Demons), but again this tanuki looks like a regular animal.

SekienTanuki

The depiction of tanukis evolved slowly, with new stories adding new elements and transforming them slowing from the realistic animals to the cartoonish figured seen all over Japan today. The big round stomach and accompanying belly-drumming didn’t become attacked to tanuki lore until the 18th century. Several stories of tanukis’ belly-drumming appear around this time, although their famous nut sacks are still regular size. They didn’t develop elephantitis until later.

Tanuki Belly Drum

The reason for the appearance is gold.

Gold Nut Sack Pounding

Utagawa Tanuki Balls

Owaka Shigeo traced the origins of tanukis’ magical scrotums in his book about Japanese metal working, Hagane no Chishiki (鋼の知識; Knowledge about Steel). He claims the myths began from goldsmiths and metalworkers in Kanazawa prefecture. In order to turn malleable gold into delicate gold leaf, they would wrap the gold in animal skin and pound it into thin sheets. They discovered that a certain part of a certain animal was the best for the business.

In biological terms, tanuki scrotums are rather large. This is an evolutionary trait to help the randy males succeed in the fierce competition for mates. And from a metalworking perspective, tanuki scrotums were both soft and strong enough that they could take the heavy pounding and stretch out to extraordinary size. It was said that, using a tanuki scrotum, even a small piece of gold could be stretched out into an 8-tatami mat big sheet of gold leaf. (Some said a 1000-tatami mat sheet, but that seems excessive.)

Utagawa Tanuki Balls Fishing

Because of this, tanuki scrotums became known for their ability to “stretch” money and make it go further. Savvy marketers started telling tales of the magical properties of tanuki scrotums, selling them as good luck charms and wallets telling buyers that the scrotums would “expand their wealth” in the same way they stretched nuggets of gold into massive sheets.

This association between wealth and tanuki testicles continues to this day. In modern times, Tanuki are said to embody “Eight Virtues,” with their large scrotums signifying luck with money.

Ukiyo-e Artists and Tanuki Balls

Utagawa Tanuki Balls Daruma

Once the myth of tanuki and their magical, giant balls hit the cities, the imagination of Edo period artists went wild. It really was too good of an idea, and made much too interesting of a motif, so artists expanded on the “stretching scrotum” idea. Suddenly, tanuki were using their nut sacks as weapons, sail boats, swimming pools, fishing nets, umbrellas … there was no limit. All of the great artists of the ukiyo-e period got in on the fun, out doing each other with even more outrageous pictures of tanukis’ magical scrotums.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi did a particularly cool set of tanuki testicle prints that you can see here.

Utagawa Tanuki Balls Archery

It was thanks to ukiyo-e artists that the idea of tanuki and their magical, giant balls became a permanent part of Japan’s folklore and popular culture. In fact, I think it shows that the addition was more of an artistic one than a storytelling one—there are many Edo period stories about tanuki, but most of them focus on either shape-shifting or belly-drumming. I have read few tanuki tales where their scrotums play a significant element to the story.

tanuki_balls punch

All the Rest

The rest of the tanukis’ outfit—the straw hat, sake jug, and pay slip—didn’t show up until even more recently. The iconic image of the tanuki that we know and love today is really a product of the Taisho era (1912-1926), when more and more shops started using tanuki for advertising or as statues out in front of their shops.

Translator’s Note:

This article was largely sourced through the amazing website OnMark Productions. Anyone who wants to know everything about tanuki (and other aspects of folkloric and Buddhist Japan) should make that site their destination. I got most of my information from there, and only used additional sources to confirm and add a bit of flavor to the article.

Further Reading:

For more tales of tanuki, check out:

The Belly-Beating of the Tanuki

The Tanuki Song

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Writing of the Tanuki

Kori no Tatakai – The Fox-Tanuki Battles

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36 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. M L Katze
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 14:19:22

    I thought the mythic Tanuki was based on the real animal, the canid tanuki (sometimes called “raccoon dog”, though it isn’t either one) of East Asia. Do you know how the Japanese name ( 狸, 貉 ) translates? There are some nice pix of the Japanese tanuki on wiki~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon_dog

    Reply

    • M L Katze
      Aug 30, 2013 @ 14:37:40

      please ignore previous comment… I was misunderstanding what you said about the tunuki as a real animal.

      Reply

  2. Zack Davisson
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 14:27:03

    It is! That is such common knowledge I didn’t think it was worth mentioning … just like how kitsune are based off of actual animals. So I kinda mentioned in the article but I wasn’t explicit. I figured everyone knows that already!

    And I have a section in the article on how to translate tanuki. But you have two separate kanji there; tanuki (狸) and mujina (貉). Although there is some confusion, they are actually two separate creatures. The main difference is that tanuki are real, while mujina are folkloric only.

    Reply

  3. M L Katze
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 14:40:39

    Thankyou for the clarification on the kanji. So does mujina refer to the the mythical tanuki?

    Reply

  4. Zack Davisson
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 15:08:27

    Not really. Mujina and Tanuki are different animals. In both Toriyama Seiken’s and Mizuki Shigeru’s yokai catalogs they have separate entries. Although it can be confusing, because some of the Mujina and Tanuki stories have become mixed over the years, and in some areas of Japan the name “Mujina” became fixed to Tanuki.

    But both the real and mythical tanuki are just called “tanuki,” just like the real and mythical foxes are called “kitsune.”

    Reply

  5. Mark Schumacher
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 17:48:37

    Thanks for the plug. What a visual and intellectual romp……for those who would like to see annotated photos of Tanuki’s inflated scrotum, please see the slideshow at http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/tanuki-scrotum-kintama-kinbukuro.html

    34 annotated photos in the slideshow. Zack-san. Always love your posts, but wish you would give sources/descriptions of the photos. In any case, keep up the great work.

    Reply

  6. Zack Davisson
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 18:33:34

    Thanks for linking to your slideshow Mark! You know how much I love your site.

    I know I’m not good at sources/descriptions of my pictures. Largely that is a lack of HTML skill … I don’t know how to do it! I am lucky I can post what I can …

    I pull as much as I can from Wikipedia, and the Japanese Yokai Image Database

    http://www.nichibun.ac.jp/YoukaiGazouMenu/

    Some of it is just Google Image search though … or scanning books I have.

    Reply

  7. vilajunkie
    Sep 01, 2013 @ 09:21:39

    There’s no need for anything fancy like hyperlinks or pop-up captions for the sources. Just a text caption below each pic would be great; similar to the italicized text you list for sources at the top of the posts.

    Reply

  8. Anonymous
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 02:37:42

    I have a question:
    Does the folklore about the Tanuki & the Mujina come from China like the Kitsune? Just curious.

    Also, tanuki & mujina ARE separate animals. Tanuki (狸) are raccoon dogs & Mujina (狢) are badgers. But, in some regions, raccoon dogs are called mujina & badgers are called tanuki.

    Reply

  9. Zack Davisson
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 19:24:51

    Actually, mujina are not badgers. Like I say in the article, the Japanese word for badger is anaguma (穴熊). Mujina are a mythical animal that was later associated with the tanuki.

    And tanuki lore is original to Japan. In China, tanuki are not considered magical animals at all, and don’t figure into their folklore. But Chinese fox-lore DID influence tanuki legends. At first the Japanese started applying fox-legends to tanuki as well, and they slowly separated over time to have different mythologies.

    Reply

    • Anonymous
      Sep 08, 2013 @ 15:05:32

      But, I have read Mujina is an old term referring to badgers. Even the kanji 狢 was used to denote badgers.

      If Tanuki lore is Japan original, how did the Tanuki start out in Japanese folklore?
      Also, in China, any animal can be a shapeshifter. If they even have shapeshifting foxes, wolves, and wild dogs, surely raccoon dogs could be included. As well as badgers and cats.

      Reply

  10. M L Katze
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 19:34:30

    What are some of the myths associated with the Mujina? Do you have images that show this mythical animal?

    Reply

  11. Mouryo
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 10:30:12

    I have read somewhere that there was a Mujina who posed as a priest but was discovered when he showed his tail while warming himself on a fireplace

    Reply

  12. vilajunkie
    Sep 09, 2013 @ 12:54:22

    From my understanding, tanuki and mujina are related in the same way that American and British robins are related. The American robin is a completely different species from the British robin, but both the US and the UK call these two species “robin” without distinguishing them as “American Robin” or “British Robin”.

    So the names tanuki and mujina might *seem* interchangeable, but one region in Japan uses tanuki and mujina for animals that go by different names in another region. However, now that Shigeru Mizuki is such a big influence on Japanese folklore, almost everyone knows a tanuki (狸) is a “raccoon dog” and a mujina (貉) is a mythical animal that’s almost like a badger or a weasel but not really a badger or weasel.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Sep 09, 2013 @ 16:09:01

      There’s no real agreement, I think. I think of it more like the mermaid/manatee connection. There were legends of magical beings called “Mujina” back in the Kojiki. Over the years the name has gotten tagged to a number of different animals that resemble the mythical mujina, but none of them actually ARE mujina.

      And it isn’t Mizuki’s influence. Toriyama gave them different entries in his yokai encyclopedias. In the Edo period they were thought of as different animals.

      Reply

  13. MLKatze
    Sep 09, 2013 @ 15:40:23

    I explored Mark Schumacher’s site for pix of the Mujina. As they are shown in illustrations I found there (sometimes both creatures are shown in the same drawing), Tanuki and Mujina appear very similar. The most distinctive difference I noted was that the Mujina is often depicted with protuberant eyes, truly bug-eyed and staring. I’m still curious as to what the mythical Mujina gets up to, so I’ll keep exploring. My favorite image of the Tanuki is the first one on this page, with the 3 little tanuki having a drumming party. Hilarious.

    Reply

  14. Zack Davisson
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 15:13:11

    I was looking around, and I saw that Mujina and Tanuki have separate entries in the Wakan Sansai Zue–Japan’s first encyclopedia. Nothing conclusive there, just interesting to note.

    Reply

  15. Anonymous
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 16:58:24

    Tanuki are raccoon dogs & Mujina are badgers!

    Even according to this, Tanuki & Mujina are completely separate (page 10 & 11):

    http://www.yamakawadojo.com/The%20Obscuritan,%20Japanese%20Monsters%20and%20Ghosts.pdf

    Reply

  16. Zack Davisson
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 19:06:04

    Again, Mujina are not badgers. The word for badger in Japanese is anaguma.

    So you have:

    Tanuki - 狸 (tanuki)
    Badgers – 穴熊 (anaguma)
    Raccoons – 洗熊 (araiguma)
    Mujina -狢 (mujina)

    Reply

  17. vilajunkie
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 07:52:29

    “And it isn’t Mizuki’s influence. Toriyama gave them different entries in his yokai encyclopedias. In the Edo period they were thought of as different animals.”

    Ah, I see. Sorry about that! I should have known better. :P

    Reply

  18. Anonymous
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 12:19:28

    Mujina is an old term referring to badgers.

    Mujina = (archaic) badger.
    Anaguma = badger

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mujina

    Reply

  19. Zack Davisson
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 12:33:25

    That’s just not true though. And honestly, quoting Wikipedia isn’t always the most useful …

    Mujina as a term first appeared in the Kojiki, referring to an animal without specific definition. Over the years the name has been applied to numerous animals in Japan–primarily badgers, tanuki, and civits.

    But there was never a time when Mujina “was” one of these animals, never a generally accepted definition of “mujina.” Depending on the time and place when you asked, you would always get a different response to “What is a Mujina?”

    So while I don’t have the exact answer, I can say that mujina is not a badger. At least not exclusively a badger, not has it ever exclusively been a badger.

    I personally think that “mujina” is a folkloric creature, whose name has been tagged to several real-life creatures over the centuries who sort-of fit the bill. That’s why you have those three–the tanuki, badger, and civit–all being called “mujina” at some point in time.

    This is a pretty common practice. A folkloric creature exists, then when a real-life animal that “sort-of” fits the bill it gets tagged with that name. The Komodo Dragon, for example. Or the kirin (giraffe) and baku (tapir) in Japan.

    Reply

    • Mazyrian
      Sep 12, 2013 @ 19:08:47

      Could the Wani be another example? Currently it refers to crocodile/alligator (and previously shark), but the mentions in the Kojiki/Nihon Shoki seem to point to a more ambiguous creature (some kind of dragon maybe).
      Though this case seems to be more complicated; there’s also the Korean scholar called Wani. Maybe a post could be in order ;)

      Reply

  20. Anonymous
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 16:14:39

    Ok, then. And I guess Kappa aren’t humanoid turtles either than.

    Also, according to this link, the character 狢 originally referred to badgers:

    http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/article/3861/

    Reply

  21. Zack Davisson
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 16:35:28

    I haven’t read that article in depth, but from I saw it is referring to the Chinese usage of the kanji 狢 , not the Japanese. There are many differences.

    Also (and again this is just off of a quick scan) that article makes a few obvious errors. Tanuki have not been thought of as supernatural creatures since ancient times … that belief actually started around the Edo period.

    Not sure what you are talking about with about kappa …

    Reply

  22. Anonymous
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 19:02:53

    But, I thought the belief of the Tanuki began in Japan as a Shinto kami since ancient times. But, when China brought shapeshifting to Japan during the Yayoi period, the Tanuki became a supernatural creature from then.
    Also, I was wondering if the Tanuki came from China like the Kitsune.

    Also, about the Kappa, the kappa is usually portrayed as a humanoid turtle. But, some depict the Kappa as a furless monkey sometimes.

    Reply

  23. Brady McElligott
    May 19, 2014 @ 12:36:16

    I grew up with a ceramic “Shojoji”, with the straw hat, the sake bottle, small wallet, and big balls. I also learned the song about Shojoji, that ends with his barking, “koi, koi, koi”. Where does Shojoji fit into all this?

    Reply

  24. Zack Davisson
    May 19, 2014 @ 13:11:46

    You’re thinking of the song “Shojoji no Tanuki Bayashi,” which is an old Japanese folksong. The Shojo-ji of the song is Shojo Temple, where the tanuki gather to play their belly drums to the sound of “Pon poko pon no pon.”

    It was adapted into English in the 1950s, with the lyrics being vastly changed to make a cute English song. Shojo-ji was no longer a temple, but became the name of the main character. And the tanuki’s call for everyone to come and play–koi koi koi in Japanese–became the “barking” sound that you remember.

    Reply

  25. Kanrei No Fushichou
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 04:35:25

    What do you mean with Racoon Dog is nothing, that is the English name of Tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides).

    Reply

    • vilajunkie
      Jun 03, 2014 @ 08:16:20

      He means that he prefers to call N. procyonoides by its Japanese name (tanuki), rather than its English name (racoon dog).

      Reply

  26. Zack Davisson
    Jun 03, 2014 @ 08:53:42

    Exactly. It’s like calling a nashi an “apple pear.” — it doesn’t actually mean anything, just a mish-mash of two different English words. The original Japanese word works better.

    Reply

    • akismet-8faf9a8aeb8e1424947befa2f0837127
      Sep 20, 2014 @ 13:12:45

      Actually, it’s a very descriptive name! Biologically speaking, they’re dogs (canids) that look like raccoons. (Also in nature we find the spider lily, a lily that looks like a spider, and the crab spider, a spider that looks like a crab.) Besides, they don’t only live in Japan (they’re found in large parts of Europe as well), so it’s not as if the Japanese language has dibs on naming them.

      Excellent article, by the way! Such fun and informative reading. I’ve been interested in tanuki and other Japanese mythology for years, and yet I’ve somehow never come across prints like these before.

      Reply

  27. flesh gordon
    Jun 23, 2014 @ 10:48:37

    villa incognito..Written by Tom Robbins…was the first time i ever heard of “tanuki”….lololol. grate book

    Reply

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