The art and folklore of Japanese raccoon dog testicles

These 19th century woodblock prints have to be seen to be believed. But how did American Baptists get involved?

Published June 24, 2009 10:15PM (EDT)

I learned today that the Japanese raccoon dog, which is neither a raccoon nor a dog, has unusually large testicles. Beloved in Japanese folklore, statues of the raccoon dog, or tanuki, often take some humorous liberties with this anatomical feature, according to Wikipedia, with the raccoon dog balls "typically hanging down to the floor or ground, although this feature is sometimes omitted in contemporary sculpture."

If you are inclined to wonder whether Wikipedia is a trustworthy source on this matter, then I would urge you to take a look at a series of woodblock prints created by the master artist Utigawa Koniyoshi in the 19th century, depicting, says Pink Tentacle, the tanuki "using their humorously large scrota in creative ways."

I am dead serious. You may think you've seen everything, but until you've spent time examining these woodblock prints, you haven't seen nothing. The raccoon dogs put their testicles to use as fishing nets, umbrellas, catfish-pounding mallets, sleds, fortunetelling tents, shop signs, boats and other applications that defy easy description. My greatest hope, now, is that these woodcuts someday get their own season of rice-paddy immortalization. That would be something to see.

Wikipedia also tells us that the tanuki's oversize testicles symbolize financial good luck, which is something we could all use these days.

And then there's this:

A common schoolyard song in Japan (the tune of which can be heard in the arcade game Ponpoko and a variation of which is sung in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko) makes explicit reference to the tanuki's anatomy:

Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
Bura bura

Roughly translated, this means "Tan-tan-tanuki's testicles, there isn't even any wind but still go swing-swing-swing." It then proceeds to continue for several verses, with many regional variations. It is sung to the melody of an American Baptist hymn called "Shall We Gather at the River?"

How it came to pass that the melody of an American Baptist hymn was transmogrified into an ode to raccoon dog testicles, I cannot tell you. But I think we need more of this kind of globalization.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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