Education About Asia

The Trickster in Japanese Art

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A story: Once upon a time, a priest at a temple called Morinji was about to hang a tea kettle over the fire when it suddenly sprouted a head, tail, and feet. The priest called in his novices to see the sight, and everyone stood aghast as the furry tea kettle scampered about the room. The monks attempted to catch it, but the kettle flew about the room, just out of reach. Finally, someone managed to snatch the little kettle and thrust it into a box. The kettle had turned into tanuki, or rather, a tanuki had turned into a kettle (Figure 1). In some versions of this tale, the monks decided that the captured kettle was too special to be used, so it was kept in the box. There, the tanuki was comfortable and sometimes transformed itself into a priest instead of a kettle.

Tanuki is one of Japan’s two contributions to the archetypal Trickster, the other being kitsune, or the fox. Trickster is one of the world’s oldest mythological figures, and examples abound in mythology and folklore worldwide. There is Hermes in Greece, the Coyote in North America, the hare Sungura from East Africa (Tanzania and Malawi, for example), and Brer Rabbit from the American South (probably a descendant himself of Sungura), to name only a few. Loki of Norse mythology is also sometimes regarded as a Trickster. (note 1)


1. For a good overview of the North American Trickster, see the introduction to Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, eds., American Indian Trickster Tales (New York: Penguin, 1998).