The Tanuki and the White Snake

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In front of the gate of Yanaka Ten-O temple, there was a barber named Hokkoshi Junto who was very fond of birds.  Juno kept a great variety of birds, both large and small. But recently, when he went to feed them in the morning, he found that the birds were disappearing one-by-one.  Someone must be stealing his precious birds, Junto thought. So he hid himself in the dark one night to catch the culprit in the act.

But he saw nothing. Well, if there was no human thief, Junto thought, surely this must be the handiwork of some rouge dog or cat.  He resolved to shoot the beast if he ever caught it feeding on his birds.

With this occupying his thoughts, Junto returned home to his bed and lay down to sleep.  No sooner had his head touched his pillow than a beautiful and elegant lady of courtly bearing, no more than twenty years old, appeared before him.  She spoke to Junto.

“I am the White Snake who has lived in the five-storied pagoda in Yanaka Ten-O temple, and protected this district for more than a hundred years.  I have many grandchildren who also live in the temple and protect the people.  But recently a Great Tanuki has come down from Dokan Mountain and taken up residence in the temple.  He has been feasting on my family, on the small white snakes. Soon will come to eat me too.  We have lived here for over a hundred years in peace, and our fear of this Great Tanuki is such that it cannot be expressed.  When all the baby snakes have become his food, and when he has finished with me, there will be no more white snakes in Yanaka Ten-O. ”

“Not only my family is in peril. This Great Tanuki has also been gorging himself on the birds that you keep.  He has escaped you unseen and unnoticed.  So I have come to you in your dreams that I may show you your true enemy.  We are helpless, and need the power of humans to rid us of this Great Tanuki.  If you find it difficult to believe what I say, go to the temple graveyard in the morning and you will find the aftermath of your bird-thief.  I beg of you, please hurry and destroy this evil tanuki.”

With that said, Junto opened his eyes and found himself in his own room, alone.

A strange dream indeed, thought Junto, and worth investigating.  The following morning he went with all possible speed to the graveyard of Yanaka Ten-O temple, and found ample evidence of the Great Tanuki’s deeds.  The feathers and bones of his beautiful birds were scattered carelessly about.

The dream was proved true beyond a shadow of a doubt, and Junko gathered the young men of the village to deliver the White Snake’s vengeance. The Great Tanuki was discovered lurking in the temple grounds and destroyed.

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The Tanuki Song

Tanuki are one of the most popular and ubiquitous of Japan’s magical menagerie.  There are few Japanese children who don’t know some variation of this popular tune:

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Tan tan tanuki no kintama wa

Kaze mo nai no ni bura bura

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Tan tan tanuki’s balls

Even without wind they blowing around

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Strangely enough, this song began as a American Christian hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River” written in 1864 written by American poet and gospel music composer Robert Lowry.

The song made its way to Japan in the 1970s when it was adapted into a popular enka song, which was then parodied into the children’s tanuki song.  The parody version is by far the best known in Japan today, with many unaware of the song’s origin.

Almost everyone sings the identical first verse, but depending on where you live in Japan you might have heard variations on the continuance.

This is the version I learned in the Kansai region:

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Sore o mite ita oya danuki

Onaka o kakaete wahha hha

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When hey saw that, the tanuki parents

laughed so hard their bellies shook.

 

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In truth, there are probably as many variations as there are groups of children in Japan, with new ones being created every day.

Tanuki Bayashi – The Procession of the Tanuki

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

Almost every night would come the sound of the taiko drums.   At times they would sound very near, at times they would sound very far away, and a local fisherman, overwhelmed with a desire to see the interesting site, became exhausted almost to the point of death while trying to find the players.  After a night of hard searching, it was all he could to make his way back home where he quickly lay down and fell soundly asleep.

The first thing he noticed was the song of a bird, so close it was like it was being sung into his ear, and his eyes sprang open at the mysterious sound.  While he thought he was comfortably at home, the dew was still clinging to his raincoat that still covered his body and the sounds of the forest were rumbling with his loud snoring.

“My wife will be angry at me”, he thought, and he was a man filled with deep regret.  Even here in this world there are such things as a procession of magical beasts.

Translator’s Note:

This print, by Utagawa Kuniteru, is called Tanuki Bayashi  (狸囃子), and depicts one of the Honjyo Nana Fushigi (本所七不思議) meaning one of the Seven Wonders  of Honjo.

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