Factious and benevolent, it exist in Japan a mysterious Yōkai called Tanuki that is full of surprises. But under its appearance of a cute raccoon dog with a bottle of sake and big scrotum, what hides behind this Tanuki that everybody is talking about?
A Tanuki (タヌキ, 狸) or Japanese Raccoon Dog is an animal native to Asia and a Yokai from Japanese Folklore. The complete name of the Yokai Tanuki is Bake Danuki (化け狸) which means literally “transforming Tanuki”. Yokai Tanuki look like raccoons or badgers with a straw hat, a bottle of sake and huge balls. Bake Danuki are first known to be masters of disguise, able to change their shape at will, and to have many magical powers. They also are the mascot of the Shiga prefecture located in the Kansai region of Honshu.
Let’s discover a bit more about the Tanuki:
What does Tanuki mean?
Tanuki (狸, タヌキ ) is the Japanese word for raccoon dog, a species of Japanese raccoon from the dog family Nyctereutes procyonoides. The term is also used to refer to a type of mythological creature from Japanese folklore better known as Bake Danuki (化け狸) which means literally “The transforming raccoon dog”.
Originally, the kanji for the word Tanuki (狸, kyūjitai: 貍) was also used for wild cats or to describe many medium-sized mammals during the Edo period. However, since wild cats only live in rare areas of Japan, the term Tanuki came to be used only to describe raccoon dogs, far more numerous, over the years.
Before being an important figure in Japanese folklore, the Tanuki is above all a Japanese raccoon dog, an animal native to Asia (China, Korea, Japan) and Siberia. Of medium size (about 60cm), this omnivorous mammal is a member of the canidae family. Unknown in Western Europe and North America, it is conveniently said to look like a badger or a raccoon.
Tanuki are the only species of the genus Nyctereutes and members of the canid family in many ways. Not only do they not bark, they have an omnivorous diet, but they also hibernate. They do not actually sleep during the winter, but build up their fat reserves in the fall and then return to their burrows from November to April.
The Tanuki lives in mountainous or forest regions. Native to Japan, Tanuki were introduced in the Soviet Union by fur producers. Until the beginning of the 20th century, its range was limited to eastern Asia and covered the Amur-Oussuri region in Russia, Korea, eastern China, Japan and northern Indochina. Between 1928 and 1955, more than 9000 animals were released in the European part of the former Soviet Union in order to increase fur production.
The species then rapidly expanded to northern, central and western Europe, and can be found in Finland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium and even in France where they were reported from 1979, especially in the Cher region. In the past, Tanuki were hunted for their meat, their black-brown fur (used to make brushes) and their bones, which were reputed to have medicinal properties.
This omnivorous canid is more a food opportunist than a real predator. As evidenced by its teeth, the Tanuki has a varied diet, highly dependent on seasons and regions. It feeds on invertebrates, small animals (frogs, lizards, insects and ground dwellers, or birds nesting on the ground) and (especially in autumn) seeds and berries.
Those living near the sea will scour the coast for crabs and other sea creatures. They are most active early after sunset and throughout the night, and then again in the early hours of the morning, during which time they may travel 10 to 20 km in search of food.
Surprisingly, raccoon dogs are among the few animals that eat frogs. Apparently they produce a saliva that can dilute the toxic secretions from the frogs’ skin.
Wild Tanuki nowadays
With the important urbanization of Japan since the 20th century, the natural territory of the Tanuki has strongly decreased these last couple years which pushes this species to move closer to the cities and villages in search of food.
Indeed, as Tanuki moved to urban and suburban areas of Japan during the 1980’s and 1990’s, they began to survive by feeding in garbage dumps and even get fed by natives in their gardens.
Originally from China, the origins of Tanuki mythology began between the 4th and 7th century, mostly during the Nara period (593 to 628) as they appeared in the in the Nihon Shoki. This important book of Japan contains many historical records as well as the origins of Japan. But the Tanuki was also found in the Nihon Ryōiki during the Heian era, a collection of Japanese anecdotes, based on Buddhist folk tales.
The legend says that a farmer reported having seen a Tanuki singing using his belly as a drum and transformed into a human.
Bake-Danuki, the Yokai Tanuki
Represented as a raccoon with a bulging belly and big balls, the Yokai Tanuki called Bake Danuki (化け狸) is initially perceived as a creature that is anything but benevolent at first, a bit like the Tengu. Indeed, when it takes the appearance of a human, the Tanuki does not hesitate to lie, steal and even kill.
However, Tanuki’s image has evolved over the centuries, making it more innocent but still as prankish. In the tale of Bunbuku Chagama, a woodcutter saves the life of a takuni and the latter, as a thank you, helps him to become rich.
During the Edo period, the Tanuki figure became so popular that it was often depicted in prints, with a touch of humor, which strongly developed the comic image of Tanuki during the Kamakura era (1185-1333).
The current silhouette of the Tanuki seems to have settled in modern times. Tanuki are widely depicted wearing a straw hat, carrying a flask of sake, with a bulging belly that they use as a drum and large private parts.
With its generous belly, its distinctive “Pom Poko pon pon” sound was used as the title of the Studio Ghibli animated movie, Pom Poko. The scrotum is also depicted as being able to act as a weapon, an umbrella or a fishing net. Besides its physical attributes, the facetious animal is also known for its unquenchable appetite for sake and food.
Finally, it is not uncommon to see effigies of Tanuki in front of restaurants and other businesses in Japan because the creature is synonymous with prosperity and good fortune.
What does a Tanuki look like?
Nowadays, the Tanuki is often depicted wearing a straw hat and carrying a flask of sake. Moreover, Tanuki’s body is also very distinct with a very big belly that he uses as a tambour to play music with and a very large scrotum that touches the ground.
As we can see, the famous Japanese Raccoon dog has clearly a lot of interesting characteristics. But there’s no doubt which is the most strange and unique: his magical expanding scrotum.
Indeed, Tanuki have large testicles, a physical trait that has inspired exaggerated artistic descriptions of the creature. These are supposed to stretch to an area of eight tatami mats, or nearly 13 square meters!
Tanuki can use their nutbags as sails for boats, fishing nets, umbrellas, swimming pools, cloaks to smother enemies
Something very strange about Tanuki Balls is that they were widely depicted in art, but not in stories where the authors used to focus more on their shapeshifting or belly-drumming, rather than their magical scrotum. According to the literature, Tanuki balls appearance only started during the Edo period when ukiyo-e artists started illustrating it. Probably because Tanuki balls are better a visual element in a painting than they are as descriptive element in stories.
In addition to their interesting physical appearance, Tanuki also have special abilities that are very useful for playing tricks on humans, including the ability to transform into a human or objects.
Just like the Kitsune, Tanuki have the power to change into human form. There are stories of Tanuki transformed and pretending to be a beautiful woman to seduce men that wake up the next morning in a pile of leaves in the middle of the woods. However, the most famous Tanuki is undoubtedly that of a Buddhist monk who is so popular that he has his own name, the Tanuki-bōzu (狸坊主).
Tanuki love to imitate humans when its transformed. Some tales say that Tanuki-bōzu can copy most of human activities like assemble together in graveyards at night with lanterns to imitate chants of Buddhist rituals like funerals and other human activities like reading, writing and more.
Legends say that a Tanuki needs to put a leaf over his head to change of appearances
Here is one of these tails:
There are many such stories of Tanuki writings that have been passed down through the years.
Most of all, Tanuki seem to enjoy imitating the most important figures of human society like government officials. They would then knock on your door and harass you with taxes or they’ll accuse you of some imaginary infraction of the law.
However, it exists some tricks to find out if the person harassing you is a Tanuki in disguise or not:
- They may be somewhat luminous when they transform
- On rainy days, their kimono will stay dry
- If they loose focus on maintaining their illusion, their tail will pop out
Besides changing into human form, Tanuki love to turn into objects to trick humans. They can disguise themselves as trees, stone lanterns, and even the moon. Moreover, they love to do the moon trick when the moon is out making people thinking they’ve gone crazy.
Tanuki also enjoy making strange noises to alert humans, however no need for magic this time. They can frighten people at night by throwing stones at their house, drop buckets into wells, clatter pots and pans. But most of all, their favorite trick is throwing a continuous rain of pebbles onto the roof of a house.
Drumming on their big bellies or scrotum is something Tanuki are famous for. In the woods, they use this sound to draw people off the beaten path until they’re lost. Tanuki can also imitate sounds of nature like thunder and lightning,
Unfortunately for them, their love for mimicry turned perilous for humans during the Meiji period. During the late nineteenth century, Japan opened to the West and started to develop technologically like railway lines.
For example, a train conductor hears a train whistle and the “shu shu po po po” sound of another steam engine coming straight towards him. In those early days there was only one track shared by trains going in both directions. So the conductor stops in a panic to avoid a collision, but no train ever arrives.
The same situation happens again and again till one night, the conductor decides to keep going. And nothing happens. The next morning, he finds a dead Tanuki on the tracks.
Some see this tale as an allegory of the clash between the new and the traditional, between foreign introduction and native Japanese culture as the train was a powerful symbol of Westernization.Still, real dead Tanuki were found on train tracks all the time, so who knows if it was only a legend?
3. Magic and Illusions
To help him perform its mischievous actions, Tanuki can also produce a catalog of illusions. For example, they can turn leaves into cash money to buy things with it, which will turn back into leaves after they’re long gone. They also can make people see entirely different landscapes, causing them to get lost even in their own village or neighborhood.
Moreover, Tanuki can produce Will-o’-the-wisp that they used to prank people, with before artificial light was common in Japan. For example, this was a good way to fool peasants and farmers having a whole conversation with a neighboor smoking a pipe in the dark. And they think it’s a hoot to make fisherman’s nets feel heavy with fish and watch as they pull up empty nets.
Finally, Tanuki can hypnotize humans and use this asset at their advantage. A Japanese legend says that Tanuki was about to get discovered by man. To avoid that, the Tanuki tricked the man by making him think that he had transformed into a shamisen player. The man, who think he’s got it all figured out, is ready to reveal it to the gathered crowd. However, just at the moment he’s ready to divulgue the identity of the Tanuki, he realizes he’s actually looking at a horse’s ass.
Tanuki in Japanese Culture
As time goes by, we notice that the presence of Tanuki in Japanese culture is more and more important. These spirits, symbols of luck and prosperity, have been present in Japanese art and stories since the Middle Ages; this has only reinforced their popularity among the Japanese.
With all these sources showing the Tanuki as a character bringing good fortune, they were given an important place in restaurant decorations next to daruma and other folklore creatures statues.
For centuries, the ceramists of Shigaraki have been making terracotta (type of earthenware) representations of Tanuki with a rice straw hat, a sake gourd, a huge belly and large private parts.
Just like the Maneki Neko, we can find a lot of statuette of Tanuki in Japan, for example, outside many Japanese temples or restaurants, especially noodle stores (ramen, soba). These statues are often depicted with a large conical hat and a bottle of sake in one hand, and a promissory bill (a bill that will never be paid) or an empty purse in the other hand. The Tanuki statues have a large and prominent belly. Old descriptions of Tanuki show them having large testicles, a trait that is often omitted in contemporary sculptures.
History tells us that Emperor Hirohito visited Koga town in 1951, near Shigaraki, and was greeted by avenues of Tanuki statues carrying the Japanese flag. The Emperor was so touched by this gesture that he wrote a poem about it, which is another reason why Tanuki became so popular in Japanese society.
Since then, Shigaraki is considered the birthplace of Tanuki. If you go to Japan for a couple weeks, do not hesitate to visit this charming village which is an important cultural place beyond the omnipresence Tanuki statues. There are over 10,000 of them spread throughout the village and the biggest statue of Tanuki in Japan sits at the exit of the Shigaraki station.
What does a Tanuki symbolize in Japan?
Today, Tanuki has become one of the mascots of Japan, you can see it everywhere when you walk in the Japanese streets. It is considered as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in the Japanese tradition, just like the cat or the Kitsune. Its physical characteristics are signs of prosperity and success.
Their reputation as a good luck charm probably comes from the fact that, in the metallurgy community, Tanuki were associated with precious metals. Indeed, the skin of Tanuki’s testicles was considered the best way for beating gold leaf, allowing a very small amount of gold to be spread over a large area. Following a confusion about the stretched size of the skin of the Tanuki’s testicles, illustrators would have had fun perpetuating the tradition by inventing uses for such testicles.
This is why Tanuki are described as having large Kintama (金玉, lit. golden balls) which can be translated as testicles. Small statues of Tanuki are sold as outdoor decorations and as good luck charms (without sexual connotations).
In addition, its bouncy appearance and large testicles are signs of prosperity and success. Small statues are often found decorating facades as a symbol of luck.
Tanuki Stories and Legends
The legends of the Edo period have clearly played a big part in the popularity of today’s Tanuki. With its ability to take any appearance, either directly or by placing a leaf over its head beforehand, it’s only natural that there is no shortage of inspiration.
There are some spooky tales with Tanuki like Kachi Kachi Yama. Kachi-kachi” is an imitation of the crackling sound made by fire and “yama” means “mountain” in Japanese. The story is said to be violent and tells how a hare adopted by an old couple takes revenge on a Tanuki who made them unhappy.
However, the most popular Tanuki story is Bunbuku Chagama, a fable that appeared in the 17th century where a poor man frees a Tanuki from a trap.
1) Bunbuku Chagama; the tale of the Magic Teapot
One day, as Jinbei was returning home with his cart full of trinkets that he had collected or bought during the day, he heard noise, tormented voices. He approached to find young boys harassing a girl. “Oh, stop the boys from being mean to her,” Jinbei shouted at them. The boys ran away. When he turned around to talk to the girl, she had suddenly disappeared. “Strange,” he thought. “Where could she have gone? “.
He continued on his way, and shortly afterwards came across the high priest of a Buddhist shrine that was located on a small hill near the road. “Hi, Jinbei! “he said to him. “I’m looking for a teapot. If you find a nice one, don’t hesitate to tell me, I’ll give you a good price.
Back at home, Jinbei began to tidy up the junk he had collected and put it in order. He used to buy useless things that he would never sell, and because of this, his house was full of unnecessary things, and he was still very poor. After observing them for a while, Jinbei discovered an exceptionally good teapot sitting in the corner of the room. “Hmm, when did I get this? “he asked himself. Then remembering the priest’s request, he took the teapot and carried it on his back to the temple.
“Pffff… It’s so heavy.” he grumbled as he walked up the hill to the shrine. Then he was surprised to hear a voice at his back saying, “You’re getting close! Keep going, don’t let go! “Turning around, he saw that the teapot was gone. Instead, there was a teapot-shaped Tanuki. “I am the girl you saved today. Let me help you in return,” the Tanuki told him. The girl he had met earlier in the day was actually a Tanuki that had taken on the appearance of a girl. Indeed, this mysterious animal had the strange power to transform.
Jinbei arrived at the temple and showed the priest the teapot. “How beautiful,” he exclaimed, clearly delighted. “I would be delighted to buy it” and so he bought the teapot, unaware of its true form.
And as he walked home, the salesman realized what had just happened, and what he had just agreed to: “I’ve done a terrible thing to the priest by not telling him what the teapot really is, and worse, I’ve left that good Tanuki in a very uncomfortable situation. I wonder if the Tanuki will be able to handle his condition.
At the same time, in the temple, the priest, so happy to have such a beautiful teapot, wanted absolutely to use it. He placed the teapot on the fire with a few branches of tea. The Tanuki tried with all his might to stay still, but soon he broke down. “Ouch! He jumped out of the fire, and started to run around the temple. The priest was so shocked to see this Tanuki that he fell backwards and hurt his back. “he muttered.
The Tanuki went back to Jinbei’s house as quickly as he could, thinking about him and his suffering, his heart full of remorse. “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! What a painful experience! “The Tanuki complained to Jinbei, crying. Jinbei saw that the Tanuki had burned himself. “It’s my fault, poor Tanuki.
He was starting to rub some cream on the Tanuki’s wounds when the priest arrived, looking angry: “You! How dare you rip me off! You’d better give me my money back, and since I was injured, you’ll have to pay for my treatment. So the already poor Jinbei had to give more money back to the priest than he had received.
The Tanuki humbly apologized as he lay there. “I’m so sorry, I wanted to do you a favor and all I did was cause trouble. Everything went wrong. “But Jinbei replied, “No, everything is fine, rest properly, and when you get better, don’t worry about the money, because I have an idea.
Thanks to Jinbei’s care, it didn’t take long for the Tanuki to regain his strength. He then asked what the idea was that he’d been talking about to earn money. “Oh, this? Hmm… so, here it is. I thought we could form a duo on the streets. I would play the drum and the flute, while you would transform yourself into all sorts of objects. What do you think? “The Tanuki was delighted, “Let’s do it! But first we have to practice.
And so they worked hard to get their act right, which they quickly performed on the streets of the city. Little by little, the crowd gathered around them, and day after day, their popularity grew. They were now famous, so much so that they were invited by the court of the emperor himself. They became rich and lived happily together.
2) Kachi Kachi Yama
Kachi-kachi Yama also known as Kachi-Kachi Mountain and The Farmer and the Badger is another famous Tanuki story in Japan.
A long time ago, there lived an old farmer with a tender heart. He and his wife had befriended a rabbit that lived in the surrounding mountains and whom they had come to regard as their own child, even though they had none. Not far from their home, there was also a Tanuki, which was constantly destroying the old man’s fields and those of the other farmers around. At the end of his rope, the farmer decided to capture it, and he succeeded.
The next day, as he had to go to town on household business, the old man left the animal tied up, under the supervision of his wife. She was making mochi and, moved by the Tanuki’s constant pleas for forgiveness, she decided to overlook the animal’s many misdeeds and set it free. But it was not to her liking, because once it was free, it went on a rampage against the poor woman and killed her. Then, using his power, he took the form of her, and waited patiently for the old farmer to return, preparing a horrible soup into which he had thrown the remains of the old woman.
That evening, back from the city, the old man sat down to dinner happily, glad to be back with his dear wife after a long day. And as he ate, the old woman transformed. Showing her true colors, the Tanuki revealed to the old man what he had just done, and giggling with satisfaction, he flew away as far and as fast as he could.
Devastated by the terrible news, the old man did not have the strength to pursue the assassin. Mourning the fate of his beloved wife, he proceeded with the customary rites, then buried her in a simple grave. The rabbit who passed by, observed the colors of mourning. She approached the old man and wept with him for a few moments when she heard that the old woman had died. Then the farmer told her what had happened. Upset, the rabbit swore to avenge his wife’s death.
A few days passed, and the rabbit decided to wear a pretty dress and waited on the grass near the house. Her ruse worked: the Tanuki soon showed the tip of its snout. As he approached, she spoke to him, “I need to carry these logs up the mountain, but my legs are killing me. Would you be so kind as to carry them for me? “. Eager to show his strength to seduce the beautiful rabbit, the Tanuki decided to help her and loaded the logs on his back.
The rabbit began to strike the wood with her flint. The Tanuki, unable to see what was going on behind him because of the burden, exclaimed, “What the hell is making that knocking noise? “. The rabbit replied, “It’s the sound of birds and the sound of the mountain cracking (kachikachi yama). Then the rabbit managed to set the logs on fire. And in the same way, the Tanuki exclaimed, “But what is that cracking sound? “. And the rabbit said, “It’s the sound of the birds and the sound of the mountain crackling (kachikachi yama).
The fire eventually spread and reached the Tanuki’s back, and it began to call for help. Scared and burned, it dropped what was left of the wood, turned around and flew away.
The next day, in a new disguise, the rabbit prepared a soy-based balm, to which she added red pepper. Soon the Tanuki came back and the rabbit said, “This medicine is very good to soothe burns, let me apply some to your wounds and you’ll feel better right away. Relieved to have found comfort, he immediately demanded that she apply the balm. But when the chili pepper touched the burned areas, he screamed as loud as he could and, mad with pain, threw himself on the ground.
After a while, before his burns healed, the Tanuki was able to prowl around again, committing mischief as he pleased. But the rabbit decided to hide under a new – and increasingly attractive – disguise, and she made him a proposition: “Would you like to go fishing? “. “Fishing? “The Tanuki repeated, “Hmm, that sounds like a good idea! “. The rabbit continued, “Then let’s build two boats. Since I’m light, I’ll build a boat out of light wood. But you, who are heavier, should build a boat out of thick mud. The Tanuki was fooled again and complied.
When the boats were finished, they launched them. Leading the expedition, the rabbit ventured further and further into the river. Soon, the Tanuki’s boat, which was following, began to take on water and began to sink. “Ah, save me! “he shouted, moaning. But instead, the rabbit came closer and hit the boat with her oar, and said, “This is just revenge for killing the old lady! “.
Powerless, the evil Tanuki disappeared to the bottom of the river, and the people of the valley could live in peace again.
Tanuki in Pop Culture
- Pom Poko, studio Ghibli, 1994
- Princess Raccoon, 2006
- In the anime The Eccentric Family, released in 2013, the main character, like all his family, is a Tanuki.
- In the anime BNA: Brand New Animal, released in 2020, Michiru Kagemori is a man-beast who takes the appearance of a Tanuki.
- In Urusei Yatsura (Lamu), the demon Oshima is a Tanuki.
- In Tom Robbins’ novel Villa Incognito, the main character is a Tanuki.
- In Inu-Yasha, a Tanuki named Hachi (八衛門, Hachiemon?) sometimes helps the other characters.
- In Naruto, the demon Ichibi (Shukaku) is a Tanuki, trapped in Gaara’s body.
- In Soul Eater, Kim’s totem is a Tanuki with healing powers.
- In Dragon Ball GT, Goku falls in another dimension, ruled by Sugoro and his son, having the ability to transform at will and the appearance of Tanuki.
- In Shaman King, the ascetic Mikihisa Asakura possesses 2 spirits, one of which, Shigaraki, is a Tanuki, his disciple, the shaman Tamamura Tamao, also possesses 2 spirits, one of which, named Ponchi, is also a Tanuki and has all the attributes of the latter, especially huge testicles of which he is very proud.
- In Secret Service, Banri WaTanuki is a Tanuki who has the ability to transform himself.
- In Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World, Mario can transform into a Tanuki, which gives him the ability to glide or attack with his tail and change into a statue (except in Super Mario 3D World).
- In Animal Crossing, the store owner is a Tanuki named Tom Nook.
- In Pokémon, starting with the Gold and Silver versions, Pokémon can learn an ability called Cognobidon, similar to the drumming that Tanuki do on their bellies.
- In the MMORPG Ragnarok Online, a type of creature called a smokie has the appearance of a Tanuki. It can be tamed and made invisible by placing a leaf on its head.
- In The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, a Tanuki is present in the forest.
- In the MMORPG Dofus, a dungeon boss is named Tanukouï-san and also has the appearance of a Tanuki.
- In Pocky and Rocky, Pocky and Rocky 2 (en) and Pocky and Rocky with Becky (en), the character of Rocky is a Tanuki.
In the 13th installment of the Manic Shooter Touhou Project, the boss of the extra stage, Mamizou Futatsuiwa, is a Tanuki.
- In Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, a Tanuki tamed by Takuma allows him to distract his enemies thanks to his cries and gestures.
- In Okami, the Tanuki is one of the twenty species of animals that the player will meet.