Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sometimes, Japan's a little nuts.

There are aspects of Japanese culture that are really inexplicably weird when you first encounter them, but as time goes on you become desensitized to how bizarre these things are. They become just another oddity in the Japanese landscape, something you hardly notice or think about.

One of these things is the raccoon dog statue. I first noticed this statue in front of a little restaurant while walking the streets of Kyoto.

A, uh, *ahem* gifted raccoon dog statue

I remember passing this statue and doing a double take. Yep, that's what I thought it was: a tiny little peter with a jumbo set of balls hanging down to the ground. Naturally, I took pictures.

Now this statue certainly struck me as odd at the time, but since then I've occasionally seen it in front of businesses and I guess it became somehow "normal." I don't stop and stare in wonderment anymore when I see raccoon statues with giant nuts.

Then last week I saw a post on the "How the World Works" blog on Salon.com titled "The art and folklore of Japanese raccoon dog testicles," addressing the main question surrounding this statue. That, of course, being, "What the hell??"

It seems that the raccoon dog, or tanuki in Japanese, is beloved in Japanese folklore and that their oversize testicles symbolize financial good luck. Which explains why shop owners like to put these statues on the front stoop. How this symbol came to be is anybody's guess, but in the 1840s Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi created a whole series of woodblock prints showing the tanuki using their mammoth testicles in outlandish ways, say as...

Shop signs...

Rowboats...

Fishing nets...

This wasn't even my favorite part about the whole thing. Yes, it gets better. Salon (which ripped this information off from the very fascinating Wikipedia page on tanuki) goes on to say that there's an old schoolyard song about the tanuki that goes like this:

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.

The song continues 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?"

Stupefied, I ran this new found knowledge by my new supervisor, who is always happy to teach me all about Japanese culture. Do Japanese school children sing this, really???

These kids could be singing about giant balls.

Yes, she said, it is indeed a school yard song, but it's old. She learned it from classmates in kindergarten, though she wasn't sure if today's high school students would know the song. Why did kids sing that song, I wondered? She had no answer, as mystified as me how such a thing made its way into Japanese culture. Feeling bold, I pushed the line a bit and asked if she remembered the melody. Suddenly she was in a big rush to get out the door to her next class and quickly suggested that the math teacher who sits next to me could serenade me instead.

Turning my computer screen toward his desk, he read the lyrics and stifled a laugh, which only attracted the attention of half a dozen other male teachers in the office, who were soon gathered 'round, bent over my computer screen and discussing the discovery in rapid Japanese. One teacher was goaded into singing, but didn't make it through the first line, omitting kintama, telling me that on TV, that word is beeped out. (As a side note, I'm tickled that the Japanese slang word for testicles, kintama, is written 金玉, symbols literally translating to "golden balls.") The bell rang for the next class and as they all hurried out the door, I heard him telling the others, "hazukashii" — "I'm embarrassed."

I figured I'd let it drop after that, having caused enough of a stir, but my supervisor made a point of bringing the subject back up when she returned to the office the next period, prodding the notoriously sukebe (perverted) teacher sitting beside her to sing the tune for me. This is the same teacher who occasionally reminds me how much he adores Joe due to his knowledge of dirty Japanese, and who once, to my astonishment, burst out in a stream of English obscenities in front of my class because he thought it was funny that he could do that and the students wouldn't understand. With my supervisor egging him on, it became a point of pride that this sukebe teacher could not back down from singing the naughty song. As we sat waiting, this normally profane old man suddenly became very meek, singing so softly that I couldn't even catch the tune. I suppose nobody wanted to risk being overheard by the boss. Can't blame them, really.

After that the subject did drop, though Joe was quite delighted to hear all about it when I got home and determined that he would have to learn the song so he could sing it in the halls and then play innocent like he didn't know what it meant. Just something some little kids taught him somewhere.

He hasn't done it yet. We'll see if he's got the kintama for that.

2 comments:

Al said...

Another classic Gail Sensei post. Well done!

Diane said...

Wow. You have really outdone yourself with this post-- images, a history lesson and a dirty song! That is hilarious!