Tanuki (Raccoon Dogs) in Japan
The real animal
In the wild they eat seeds, fruits, and berries but they are also omnivorous and will eat any kind of small animals they find, such as lizards, birds, or mice. As they move closer to the suburbs and cities though, they are known to scavenge any kind of human waste like garbage or roadkill. Those that live near the water will even eat small crabs, or whatever else washes up and looks tasty.
It’s rare to find tanuki in zoos, in fact only one zoo in the United States has them. That’s the Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, GA. The brothers who live there are named Loki and Thor. In 2015 Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City, Mexico celebrated the birth of 9 tanuki pups. You can also find them at two zoos in China and Singapore.
Tanuki are not endangered and hunting them is not illegal. In fact there have been problems recently with faux fur coats actually being made of tanuki pelts. In the past the large scrotum was used for hammering gold balls extremely thin to make gold leaf. In Japanese kin ne tama (きんえたま) means “small ball of gold” and sounds similar to the slang kin tama (きんたま) for testicles. It was also believed that eating tanuki meat in a soup would cure all kinds of ailments.
In one story he transforms himself into a human and spends all night drinking and partying in a local tavern. At the end of the night he pays for his drinks but after he leaves the money turns into dead leaves. This might explain the leaf used in the Super Mario Bros. video games that Mario uses to put on the Tanooki Suit or fly with the tanuki tail and ears. Leaves are also used to help the tanuki transform, like Mario transforming into the stone tanuki statue.
As I said before the tanuki’s large testicles are an important part of his stories. Illustrations depict him using them as a raincoat, a fishing net, a drum, and in one story he secretly used his scrotum to trick some humans by replacing their picnic blanket with it.
In artistic depictions there are usually 8 main traits found.
- A straw hat or umbrella which means he’s always prepared for bad weather.
- A big belly which implies that he’s level headed and composed.
- A tail, which symbolizes determination.
- A promissory note with the kanji for “passbook” symbolizing honesty and the ability to gain the trust of others.
- Big, round, eyes for awareness and making good judgements.
- A happy face showing graciousness and a welcoming attitude.
- A flask of sake with hachi (八) showing an appreciation for food and eating /drinking in moderation.
- And of course the giant scrotum showing luck with money.