A Tale of Tea and Shape Shifting

6 minute read

Badger, racoon, teapot or something in between? A story of transformations, good fortune and abundance connects three objects from Japan at MAA. 

An earlier post here reflected on the challenges we sometimes encounter in identifying animals in the museum collection.  

This tiny figure is a 根付 (netsuke), a tiny sculpture that became popular in Japan, first as ornamental toggles for boxes, and later as intricate and ornate objects of intrigue or delight. This kind, a three-dimensional figure, is called a 形彫根付 (katabori netsuke or sculpture netsuke).

This netsuke seems to depict a pot of some kind, with rounded body and lid with handle, and an animal’s head, feet and tail. What is going on here? Is it a pot in the form of an animal? A pot transforming into an animal?

Figure 1. Netsuke. Wooden figurine in the form of a shape-changing tanuki (racoon dog) from the folktake Bunbuku Chagama. Tokyo, Japan. Height 2.9 cm. Collected and donated by Mrs Gertrude Giovanna Nesta Strickland. Possibly collected by Mrs De Bar. MAA 1943.106.

This netsuke is part of an eclectic assortment of visual and material culture from Japan, collected by the enigmatic Mrs de Bar and donated by a Mrs T.A.G. Strickland in 1943. We don’t know when the collection was made, or in what circumstances. The Accession Register for 1943 notes, not entirely helpfully, that

‘These Japanese specimens were, to a large extent, collected by the late Mrs De Bar.’

Mrs Strickland was the wife of Thomas Alfred Gerald Strickland, honorary photographer for the Museum. It is of course common for the identities of women who donated objects to museums to be concealed behind those of their husbands. Her name was Gertrude Giovanna Nesta Strickland, and from notes in the catalogue record for a piece of furniture she donated to the V&A in 1942, we think that ‘the late Mrs De Bar’ was her sister. 

The object was described in the accession register as a ‘netsuke, wooden. Badger-kettle’. The ‘badger-kettle’ needs some explanation. It represents (sort of) a tanuki, also known as Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes viverrinus), which has been variously and incorrectly referred to in English as a badger or racoon. The tanuki is an important character in many Japanese proverbs and folk tales in its supernatural form: as the 化け狸 (bake-danuki), one of the 妖怪 (yōkai or ‘strange apparition’). It has the ability to shape shift, transforming into humans or inanimate objects. Why this one is transforming into a kettle will be revealed shortly. 

The Strickland/De Bar collection includes a book, The Wonderful Tea-Kettle, by Mrs T.H. James. Again, her husband was Thomas Henry James: her given name was Kate). She was a Scottish translator of Japanese children’s stories into English, who lived in Japan in the 1880s and 1890s.

Figure 2. The Wonderful Tea-Kettle, by Kate James, 1896. Tokyo, Japan: T. Hasegawa. Donated by Gertrude Strickland. MAA Z 36443.

First published in 1896 (Meiji 29), The Wonderful Tea-Kettle is number 16 of the English- language Japanese Fairy Tale Series, printed by Takejiro Hasegawa in Tokyo. It is a retelling of the folk tale Bunbuku Chagama, which means ‘Happiness bubbling like a teapot’. 

In the story, a tanuki or bake-danuki is rescued by a poor man from a trap in the forest. In gratitude, the tanuki transforms into a beautiful 茶釜 (chagama), a cast iron kettle for making tea, and gives himself to the man. The next day the man donates it to the Buddhist temple in Morinji. When a monk at the temple hangs the enchanted kettle over the fire to boil the water, it cannot stand the heat and, yelping, sprouts a furry nose, tail, and furry feet and flees back to poor man’s home. The tanuki has another, better idea. Days later the poor man sets up a successful sideshow featuring the world’s only living tea kettle dancing on a tightrope. The poor man and his wife gains the material wealth they had never known, and the tanuki gains a friend. After many performances, the exhausted tanuki returns to the Buddhist temple and lives out his days as a tea kettle on a shelf in the abbot’s room. 

Figure 3. Suiteki. Metal water dropper used by writers, in the form of a badger-kettle, the shape-shifting tanuki from the folk take Bunbuku chaguma. Japan. Donated by Gertrude Strickland. MAA 1943.111.4.

A third tanuki appears, again in the Strickland/De Bar collection, as part of a writing set purchased from Kyukyodo, official stationers to the Imperial Household, on Teramachi Street in Kyoto. It is a 水滴 (suiteki), a water dropper used to add small amounts of water to an ink block, creating a medium for drawing or painting.  

In 1906 the Japanese scholar and art historian Okakura Kakuzō published The Book of Tea. Written in English and explicitly addressed to Western audiences in response to Orientalist representations of, and prejudices against, Japan, it espoused an aesthetic philosophy of 茶道 (chadō): ‘Teaism’.

‘Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of æstheticism—Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence… It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’

The story of bunbuku chagama, the netsuke and the artist’s water dropper seem to blend together the multiple resonances of a cup of tea in Japan. We have a story of transformation, of good fortune, of prosperity, which also shows how central tea was, and is, to Buddhism in Japan: the tanuki-teapot grows weary of his money-making performances and having once fled from the monastery, returns there to live out its days in peace on a shelf in a storeroom. One can’t help thinking of these objects, waiting, in the shelves of the museum’s reserve collections. But if Okakura’s Teaism is about contemplation and adoration of the beautiful, and the imperfect, then the shapeshifting tanuki takes us through other transformations, the refinement of a toggle into an object of appreciation; the alchemy of producing ink and calligraphy through the adding of water to an ink block, and a brush to paper. 

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