Tanuki: Real and Magical!

Tanuki (Raccoon Dogs) in Japan

     The Japanese raccoon dog, or Tanuki, have a long history in Japanese folklore and they actually are a real animal. You can find them in the forests and mountain valleys of Japan and more recently in suburbs and even cities. You’ll find statues and sculptures of them, mostly looking friendly and often with a big belly. The tanuki of stories are often portrayed as a lush so the statues often carry a jug for sake as well as a promissory note (an I.O.U. he never pays). Another feature tanuki, both real and fictional, are known for is… their overly large scrotum, which is usually on display in sculptures and illustrations.


The real animal

     The real animal looks similar to a raccoon or badger but is actually more closely related to the canine family, like a dog or fox. They are one of the few canine type animals who hibernate. When the weather cools down they will fatten themselves up and hunker down in their den during the cold season. Their fur grows thicker as well. They are very family oriented and the male will often go out for food and bring it back to his mate while she takes care of the pups. When there are no kids the would-be parents will forage together in pairs. This tight grouping also helps them keep warm during hibernation.

      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 folklore

     In stories the tanuki is a yokai, like a ghost or a god, known as baku danuki (ばけだぬき). He is a trickster who likes making humans look foolish. He could also change his shape to aid in his tricks. The animal was first depicted in folklore in Nihon Shokai (The Chronicles of Japan) from the year 720. 

     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. 
     The tanuki is a fascinating animal both in fact and fiction. I’ll leave you with some more images and a recommendation that you keep your wits about you. You never know when the person you are looking at might be a tanuki in disguise!
via https://www.instagram.com/p/BUOTSIdDrHH

Phil Nolan