More to Salt and Tanuki Statue Traditions Than Meets the Eye!

  • If you look carefully as you’re walking around Japan, you’ll notice small plates or dishes of salt outside a lot of homes and businesses. If you ask around you’ll get a few different explanations for the reasoning behind people leaving these out. The most common explanation I’ve been given is that the salt is there for purification, similar to how it’s thrown around the ring before a sumo match and that it keeps bad spirits away.

    Piled up salt (mori shio)

    Another reason given in the case of businesses is that the salt is there to attract customers. There is an old story about an emperor in China who visited a street filled with prostitutes, riding in a cart. One of the prostitutes started leaving salt outside so the animals pulling the cart would stop there to enjoy the salt and the emperor would have to stop at her door and no one else’s and therefore, she would get all the money!

    Tanuki Statues

    A tanuki is an animal that lives in Japan, in English it is called a Japanese racoon dog. Now you won’t see the actual animals themselves outside businesses in Japan but you will see Tanuki statues everywhere! Although, the statues are cute versions of a tanuki with a few traditional and sometimes surprising details! You will usually see them wearing straw hats and holding a bottle of sake and a promissory note (which they never pay!).

    The most obvious (and surprising) of the details if you look closely is that Tanuki statues always have enormous testicles! The legend says they can stretch their scrotum to the size of eight tatami mats and that they have the ability to change their shape in order to play tricks on people!

    Why then, do you so often see them outside shops and businesses? Apparently, a long time ago gold workers found that the skin of a tanuki’s scrotum was perfect for making gold leaf with, as it was strong and flexible enough to use to hammer the gold into really thin sheets. On top of this, the word in Japanese for a small ball of gold (kin no tama) is very similar to the Japanese word for testicles (kintama)! This has led to tanukis and their testicles to be a symbol for wealth and prosperity.

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