Vegder's Blog

January 2, 2018

What Rhymes with Scrotum? – the Japanese fascination with tanuki (狸)

Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother?
The snotgreen sea. The scrotum-tightening sea.
Epi oinopa ponton.

                                                                         from James Joyce’s Ulysses

I laughed to myself when I thought of this title. Hopefully I haven’t offended, but if I have then move on. As for the more intrepid visitors, this posting will not be as lascivious as the subject line would suggest. Juvenile? Yes, to a degree. A topic worth exploring? Yes, what topics aren’t? That said, when I tried out my title on a friend on the phone, I got one thing I wanted and one thing I didn’t. First, my friend gave a started titter, but then he said “totem”. I said: What?!! He said: “Totem! It rhymes with scrotum.” Damn. Then two other friends said: “Factotum!” Damn, damn, damn. Maybe I should think before I leap. Not as much fun, but certainly more adult and reasonable. Oh well…

A tanuki performing the tea ceremony using his scrotum instead of a tatami mat.
Shōrei surimono – ca. 1840-80
The Rijksmuseum

The Nyctereutes procyonoides  – what is it exactly?

Well, for one thing, we can settle on the fact that tanuki are referred to as raccoon dogs even in the most abstruse scientific journals. So it is okay to call them that. Okay?

Is it a racoon? Is it a kind of dog? Is it a racoon dog? Or, maybe it is a badger. Whatchathink? No, it is definitely not a badger, because a badger is a Meles meles and a raccoon dog is a Nyctereutes procyonoides. See? Yeah, that’s it. They aren’t the same thing even if they do look alike. At this point I have to apologize for some of the images on this page because they are referred to as badgers, but… in point of fact they are probably just little old tanuki. See? Something along the way got lost in translation and that means that sometimes tanuki are called badgers and vice versa. See? A little bit of ignorance goes a long long way, don’t you think? I do. So try to bear with me on this one. Oh… and tanuki are not bears, either. Either are koalas for that matter, no matter what we call them. My head spins.

However, the difference between raccoon dogs and badgers is driven home in an article entitled ‘Morphology and morphometry of skulls of raccoon dogs, Nyctereutes procyonoides and badgers, Meles meles‘ where it says definitively: “Although the raccoon dog belonging to Canidae is taxonomically different from the badger, a mustelid species, it has been often confused with the badger, because of the similar appearances such as body type or facial maculae…” There you have it in black and white. Any questions? [I don’t really mean “Any question?” I am trying to be ironic to those of you that don’t have a built-in scientific sense. See?]

Nyctereutes procyonoides
photo by Piotr Kuczynski posted at Wikimedia Commons
(Notice the cocked head of this tanuki.
Maybe it doesn’t understand scientific jargon any better than I do.)

The confusion is understandable, especially in the past 

Below is a 17th century oil sketch of European badgers and civets. One look at these badgers explains away a lot of the early misidentification. Besides, I have a particular passion for oil sketches and feel oh so lucky to have found this one.

Oil sketch of badgers and civets by the Dutch artist Pieter Boel (1622-74)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Limoges

What would you do if this happened to you?

‘Medicine Peddlers Startled by Gigantic Testes of Tanuki at Hiroo Plain in Azabu’ – 1881
Azabu Hiroo no hara Senkintanō ōkintama ni odoroku
麻布広尾原 千金丹 大きん玉に おどろく
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年: 1839-92)

But first, let’s go back to the issue of what rhymes with scrotum: I am a big fan of Eminem’s ability to stretch rhymes out of words that don’t look like they could possibly rhyme, but he does it. He even did it on ’60 Minutes’ once. Just leave it to Slim Shady – aka Marshall Bruce Mathers III.
Oh, and ‘hokum’ rhymes with it too.

Words are words are words…

Words are triggers for most people. The ‘n’ word, for example. Of course, it generally matters what the context is or who is using that word and how they are using it. A black rap star can use it, but not a whole lot of others without intentionally making it a full-on verbal assault. Then there are the ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ words, not to mention the rest of the alphabet. Scrotum would probably qualify as one of the ‘s’ words except in the cases of doctors, nurses, science teachers and those wonderful people who make jock straps. Even the word ‘jock’ is a no-no in many peoples books.

But let’s take a brief look at the word ‘scrotum’ and see what we can glean, short of tittering or disgust.

I own a number of books that deal with etymology, but only one that focuses on the word ‘scrotum’. Joseph Shipley in The Origins of English Words tells us that the Indo-European root is ske(r)u, which means to “cut, dig, poke, push. scrotum: a bag “pushed” from the belly at the crotch; its form influenced by L. scrantum: a quiver, a container.” He ties this via Old French for a word that morphed via ‘a folkchange’ to scroll. “Hence also escrow.” (An aside: have you ever wondered about the origin of the word ‘crotch’? I have, but have yet to look it up and not because it is one of those ‘c’ words. Actually, I am almost never offended by the words themselves. They are only vehicles in the hands — or mouths — of their users. ‘Sticks and stones’, you know.)

Etymologyonline, a great and what seems a credible source, give some more information about this word. They say the Latin word ‘scortum’ means hide or skin. That makes sense. And they add that “…perhaps by influence of scrautum “leather quiver for arrows.”

The Japanese word for scrotum, or one of the words, is innō (陰嚢). 陰 is a sex organ and 嚢 is a pouch or purse. Just for good measure, the Japanese word for testicles is kōgan (睾丸): 睾 means ‘testicles’ and here apparently 丸 means ’round’. At least that is my best guess.

My goodness, I would hate to be the person flattened by a tanuki’s scrotum. How humiliating!

“Badger with a distended scrotum”
Notice the figure being squished below
by Shugetsu II of Edo – 19th century
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Kuniyoshi print below follows the same theme. Or does it? The print on the left is titled: 其面影程能写絵. These date from somewhere around 1847-48. Kuniyoshi’s genius for invention is breathtaking. Ooooph!


“Give a tanuki a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a tanuki to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Tanuki fishing in the river
Tanuki no kawagari
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I mean no disrespect, but… For those of you who are offended by these images, I would like you to remember that I didn’t create them. And for those of you who find this sort of mythic mumbo-jumbo ridiculous, I would remind you that every culture has it myths and belief systems… and its skeptics and doubting Thomases. Japan, which has no dearth of superstitious believers, some would say, rivals the West in its own hard and fast belief systems. Not only that, but where there was water (and fish) there were representations in either oral or visual genres. The ancient Egyptians painted frescoes of men in boats out to catch fish. While this might appear at first glance to be a common everyday scene, these paintings often appeared in tombs which were intended to serve the dead in their afterlife both as their sustenance and as a reminder of their previous earthly existence. Mainly they survived because they were in tombs and not simply as decorative motifs on the walls of palaces which suffered the vicissitudes of time, climate and man-made destruction.

Fishing scene from the tomb of the sculptor Ipuy – ca. 1275 B.C.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
(The museum says that this is tempera on paper facsimile of the original made by Charles K. Wilkinson
in the 1920s, more than 3,000 plus after the original which was left in situ.)

In another Metropolitan Museum facsimile of a painting from the tomb of Menna (ca. ca. 1400–1352 B.C.) the curatorial files noted that “…Tilapia, fish that carry their young in their mouth… were [also] linked with regeneration… Thus Menna… helps to guarantee the daily re-iteration of creation and his own regeneration and rebirth.”

There is more than one way to catch a fish 

地引だぬき – ca. 1843-44
Hauling in their catch

“As fish are caught in a cruel net” – Ecclesiastes 9:12

In Luke 5 Simon, later Peter, tells Jesus that he and his brother had fished the night before and caught almost nothing. Jesus tells him to go out again and cast out his nets. Simon does this and begins to haul in a multitude of fishes. In fact, there are so many that the nets begin to break. So Simon calls another boat over to help him. However, there are so many fish that both boats are on the verge of sinking with their loads. True story or metaphor? Doesn’t matter. The point is the Christian belief in a miracle centered on fishing is simply another form of cultural acceptance of something which otherwise would seem far-fetched. How does this differ from Kuniyoshi’s visions of tanuki fishing? Your call.

Jesus at the Sea of Galilee -1444
Konrad Witz
There are two remarkable things to note about this painting other than the subject matter:
1) Witz has painted a scene at Lake Geneva as a stand-in for Galilee and
2) Witz is one of those rare, rare birds, i.e., a 15th century Swiss artist.

Benkei and the bell 

Benkei (弁慶 – d. 1189) was said to be a giant of a man, over 8′ tall and as strong as an ox. No! That’s wrong. He was said to have been stronger than a team of oxen. Anyway, he was a rambunctious sort of fellow around whom many myths developed. A warrior priest who tried to join one sect, but their temple near Lake Biwa (琵琶湖) banished him from their grounds. So, he set up his own little sanctuary/temple but decided that it needed a bell. Another temple nearby at Mii-dera (三井寺) had a splendid bell which Benkei thought would serve his purposes. However, once he had stolen this massive piece he tried to get it to ring the way it had at its original location. However, all that he could get out of it was a plaintive, pathetic cry which some say sounded that way because it wanted to go home. In frustration Benkei kicked it on down the mountain until it arrived back where it began, although it was a bit scratched and dented with visible signs of what it had just gone through. Once returned to its owners it rang out wonderfully when struck. There must be a moral in there somewhere.

The image on the left below comes from the collection of the Tokyo National Museum and shows Benkei hauling the bell he has stolen up a mountainside. The print is by Kuniyoshi. The image on the right is a piece of folkart made at Ōtsu (大津), which is near where the supposed theft of the bell took place. It comes from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


Tanuki as both Benkei and the bell 

Mii-dera no Benkei

As if the subject of scrotums weren’t disturbing enough… Now this!

Boy, I would hate to be the guy, er… tanuki, who drew the short straw on this one. I feel for ya bro.

The archery range
Kuniyoshi’s take on the ancient art of target practice

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

                   Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

An absurdist bit of trivia: I really like the Collins Dictionary online. I use it often, but, as with other dictionaries, if I don’t like the results I look elsewhere. But, all in all, I really like Collins. Which brings me to the point of one of their occasional features. When you look up a word, especially an obscure or little used word, they often graph it out it usage chronologically. For example, the word ‘scrotum’ was most often in use in 1785. It peaked again at the same level in 1856 and 1878. It almost reached the same usage level in 1893 and 1972, but not quite. The last year Collins records is use is in 2007 when ‘scrotum’ appeared in print at less than half the rate it had in 1785. What does this tell us? Nothing really, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Why? Because so much of life is taken up by useless information and entertainment. Tra la…

Shinpan tanuki asobi – 1884
Kobayashi Eijirō
Princeton University Library

A trickster tanuki scaring his fellow tanuki(s) with a giant, monster-like head of a tengu –

The lanterns (?) form the eyes, the scrotum is a large nose, the tail may be its tongue, the braided straw cord its large teeth and the straw raincoats (?) on each side are its ears.

An imitation of a tengu
Tengu no mane – ca. 1843-44

Konpira mairi

The print by Kuniyoshi above is made more understandable when you know the story of the one by Hiroshige below.  It shows travelers, that is, pilgrims walking the Tōkaidō Road to get this hamlet where there is a Kompira/Konpira temple. The man carrying a large, long-nosed mask of Saruda-hiko/Saruta-hiko on his back, the god-protector of travelers is the clue. The Britannica tells us that: “Sarudahiko is popularly worshipped among Shintō followers as a god of the crossroads, as an example of loyal service to the emperor, and as an embodiment of male sexuality. He is depicted as having a red face, a huge protruding nose (which is of phallic significance), and large round eyes.”

Numazu at twilight – 1833-34
沼津 黄昏図
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mock Joya described this god as being: “…seven feet-tall, possessing a nose five feet-long. His eyes shone as a huge mirror, and his face was ruddy. His appearance was so fierce and his eyes were so penetrating that none of the thousands of heavenly persons could directly face him the strange monster. His name is Saruta-hiko and he was really a huge monkey. [Saru means monkey.] His fierce eyes and terrible countenance were strong enough to dispel any evil spirit, not to mention the heavenly persons who met no enemy they could not conquer. From this story saru became to be believed to possess the power to shield one from any evil.” However, there was one god, Uzume-no-mikoto, the ugliest of all female gods, who could bend him to her will.

Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon?

Like everywhere else, there was a craze for hot air balloons when they first showed up. The image on the right from 1890 is by Kiyochika and shows Onoe Kikugorō V (1844-1903) as the Englishman Percival Spencer (1864-1913).


When someone writes the history of this particular genre, tanuki images, that is, they will have to include research on when the first balloon flights took place in Japan. My guess, and it is only as guess as of now, would be that they may not pre-date those wonderful Kuniyoshi images from ca. 1843-44 or he would have been the first one to show a tanuki using his own scrotum or that of a friend as a hot air balloon. On the other hand, maybe there was an earlier balloon flight, but Kuniyoshi wasn’t there to see. And yet… if there had been you would think he would have seen some kind of image of it and incorporated that into his psyche. But, like I said, I don’t know for sure and will have to keep digging.

Aha, I am getting closer. We know that a satirical illustrated book appeared in 1803 which makes reference to a hot air balloon ride. The text was by Kan’watei Onitake (感和亭 鬼武: 1760-1818), a pen-name, and was illustrated by Hokusai (北斎: 1760-1849) using one of his many artistic names. In this piece Wakan zatsuwa published in 1803 two foreigners, one Dutch and one Chinese are vying for the favors of an incredibly ugly Japanese prostitute nicknamed Buta or pig. To impress her, the Dutchman takes Buta up in a hot air balloon. It didn’t go well. She threw up. But, at least, now we have a jumping off point for the first use of a balloon: 1803 or earlier.

Aha #2: Now we – you and I – are getting a lot closer: The first hot air balloon was flown in 1783 – see the section below. The first Japanese illustrated reference to it was published in an ehon in 1787. It appeared in the Kōmō zatsuwa (紅毛雑話) by Morishima Chūryō (森島中良: 1754-1810). Kōmō zatsuwaloosely translated, is ‘Foreign musings’. Very loosely translated. An illustration of a hot air balloon appears in volume 1.

However, it may not have been until 1805 that foreigners, this time a mixed group led by a Russian legation, gave a demonstration to 30 native Japanese of a balloon flight.

Now here is where I go off on another tangent again, but only briefly 

I still have to figure out the history of the hot air balloon in Japan, but I can’t do that in a vacuum. It all started in France in with the Montgolfier brothers, Etienne and Joseph. They were two children, among 16, of a well-to-do family that owned paper factories. The first balloon demonstration took place on June 4, 1783 in their home town of Annonay in southern France. It simply demonstrated that a balloon filled with hot air would rise. Later, on September 19, 1783, they gave a second demonstration at Versailles. That time they sent up a sheep, a rooster and a duck as the passengers. What could possibly follow? Sending people up into the air, of course. Just two months later it was the Marquis d’Arlandes among others. Their own John Glenn. Soon the word and the craze spread. Below is a painting by John Francis Rigaud  (1742–1810) of ‘Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a Balloon‘ from 1785. Below that is an oval box with a glass bead covering from 1785-1800 showing the same scene.

John Francis Rigaud – 1785
Yale Center for British Art

It was an Italian aristocrat from Naples who made the first balloon flight in England. He and his assistant George Biggin took it on September 15, 1785. No mention of the lady. She flew later.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Everyone loves goldfish 

The question I have is… is this tanuki a peddler of goldfish or is he only enjoying the pleasure of his own personal scrotum/fishbowl? Perhaps the answer lies in the look on his face – whatever that is. And then again, what does he do with the fish when he isn’t acting as a living container for them? Below are two images that deal with these questions. The first one is a print by Hiroshi Yoshida showing people gathering around a business that sells these fish and the second is an Utamaro who is carrying her new fish home.

‘Scooping up Goldfish’ – 1928
Kingyo sukui – 金魚すくい
Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Young woman holding a bowl with a goldfish – ca. 1797
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The tanuki as a tea kettle 

The tanuki as a tea kettle – notice: no prominent distensions – 1862
Utagawa Yoshitsuya (1822-66)
Waseda University

Normally I don’t post images displayed in black and white, but…

But this one is too good not to show to you. It not only prominently displays a badger, but it also has bats, a topic I have written about  more than once. I found it while doing research for this post, had never seen it before and absolutely love it. Here it is:

Soga Shōhaku (曾我蕭白: 1730-1781)
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Eugène Delacroix – Who’s your daddy?

Eugène Delacroix was by name the son of the French diplomat Charles Delacroix. However, there’s the rub. Eugène, the son, was born in 1798. His father died in 1805, but it is what happened before Eugène’s birth that matters. Charles Delacroix was born in 1741 and at some point – I haven’t found the date yet – married Victoire Oeben who came from a very famous family of furniture makers, the Oeben-Rieseners. Victoire and Charles ostensibly had four children. However, several years before Eugène was born his ‘father’ underwent, what became known as a famous operation, the removal of a 32 lb. tumor from his left testicle. I can’t even imagine. Ouch! Ouch not only because this operation was made approximately 34 or 35 years before the birth of Joseph Lister, the man who pioneered antiseptic medicine, but also decades before the use of antesthesia in surgery. Double ouch!!

By the time of his surgery on September 14, 1797, Charles must have had an enormous scrotum and have lived through quite a few years, I would imagine, of excruciating pain. How could he father a child on April 26, 1798, a little more than seven months later? That is one of the reasons why so many people believed that Eugène Delacroix’s real father was another, more famous, French diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838). They were even said to look alike… father and son, that is.

Study for the Death of Sardanapalus
by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Don’t ask me why I chose to show you this exciting oil study for this section. It is just that somehow in my mind I see a connection between Charles Delacroix’s surgery and the chaos and murder being shown above. Bet there are a few eunuchs in there, too. Brava Eugène.

I lost a great friend recently 

Right before I started this post I learned that a dear friend, a lover of all things Japanese and especially Japanese woodblock prints, had passed away. In an obit-of-sorts written by one of her sons and her daughter, in the New York Times, it mentioned that when she was younger things were a bit tight at home and that whenever her family had cupcakes she was only allotted one and always wished she could have had two (or more) to eat. Then while doing research for this tanuki post I ran across this picture of 3 cupcakes on a plate, with the tanuki cupcake front and center. Well, here’s to you Lorraine. I would have gladly given you my cupcakes if I could have, even one that looked like a tanuki. She would have loved the gesture, I am sure. Here’s to you Lorraine… You’ll be missed, but you will always be with us.

I found this photo at Wikimedia Commons. It was originally posted at Flickr by yoppy.

If you don’t like what I have posted so far, then you can just get on your unicycle and be on your way!

I found this image on a short essay by Tara M. McGowan ‘Testicular Tanuki Tales: Japanese Folk Humor for Children with a Ribald Satirical Twist’. It contains a number of images I have and will be posting plus a different take on this subject.


If this subject of tanuki has intrigued you and you would like to know more,
then click on the photograph below and it will take you to a web page
created by Mark Schumacher which is absolutely and completely
more encyclopedic on this subject than any silly/goofy writings
I might have contributed. You won’t regret it.
His web pages are amazing!

I found this photo at Flickr. It was posted there by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard.



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