What is a tanuki?
The real-world animal
Tanuki, also known as raccoon dogs, are a fascinating species of animal that are native to Japan. These furry creatures have long been a part of Japanese culture and folklore, and have been featured in many traditional stories, songs, and poems.
Despite their name and appearance, tanuki are not related to raccoons. They are part of the Canidae family, which also includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. Tanuki have a similar appearance to raccoons, with a distinctive mask-like pattern on their face and a bushy tail. They are slightly smaller than raccoons, and have shorter legs and a more rounded body shape.
Tanuki are omnivorous animals, and their diet consists of a variety of plant and animal matter. They are known to eat berries, fruits, and nuts, as well as insects, fish, and small mammals. They are also known to raid gardens and orchards in search of food, which has sometimes earned them a reputation as pests.
Tanuki — the mythical creature
Hey, are those some fish?
No, those are tanuki crushing people with their mammoth testicles.
In Japanese folklore, tanuki are often depicted as mischievous and playful animals. They are known for their shape-shifting abilities, and are said to be able to transform into various objects and animals. They are also associated with good fortune and wealth, and are often depicted holding a large bottle of sake or a magical staff.
Tanuki are also famous for their large testicles, which are often depicted as being as big as drums. In Japanese folklore, tanuki's testicles are said to grant wishes and bring good fortune. This association is believed to have originated from the fact that the tanuki's scrotum is large and loose, and can make a drum-like sound when the animal runs or jumps.
Despite their popularity in folklore and culture, tanuki are not a commonly seen animal in Japan. They are shy and elusive creatures, and are mostly active at night. I’m dying to see one in the wild, but I never have.
The Tale of the Lucky Tea Kettle
One famous example of a tanuki in Japanese folklore is the fairy tale of Bunbuku Chagama, which has been translated into English as “The Accomplished and Lucky Teakettle” (1871) and “The Wonderful Tea Kettle” (1886).
At a temple called 茂林寺 (morinji // Morinji) in Kōzuke Province, which today is 群馬県 (gunmaken // Gunma Prefecture), the master priest owns a 茶釜 (chagama // a traditional tea kettle).
When the priest sets the kettle on a hearth, the kettle sprouts a head and a tail (and may be legs, depending on who tells the story), and turns into a tanuki.
The priest and his novices subdue it, and since it reverts to the form of an ordinary kettle, they sell it to a traveling rag-peddler.
The kettle reveals its half-tanuki form to the peddler, and the merchant acts on a friend's advice to command the beast to turn tricks (or is persuaded by the tanuki itself, which bargains to perform acrobatics in exchange for being well-treated). The peddler agrees to neither put it over hot flame nor stow it away in a stuffy box, and share what food he has.
The tanuki apparently sets the bar pretty low for friends, as this is enough to convince it to walk a tightrope, do acrobatics, and make the peddler rich from his new circus-like roadside attraction.
The man becomes wealthy, and returns the kettle to 茂林寺 (morinji // Morinji).
What’s cool about this story is that 茂林寺 (morinji // Morinji) is a real temple that you can go visit in Gunma, and it has a bunch of statues of tanuki!
Here it is on Google Maps.
Apparently you can meet this handsome lad there, too:
Will I spot a wild tanuki in Japan?
Sadly, probably not.
They’re shy and elusive animals, and are mostly active at night. They tend to avoid humans and are not easily spotted in their natural habitat.
In addition, tanuki populations have been declining in recent years due to habitat loss and human activities. They are considered to be a vulnerable species, and are protected by Japanese law.
If you are interested in seeing tanuki in the wild, your best chance would be to visit a nature reserve or conservation area where they are known to live. But don’t get too close!
Back when I was living in Japan, there was a news story claiming that a person spotted a wild tanuki in the heavily wooded area of 明治神宮 (meiji-jinguu // Meiji Shrine), right in the heart of Tokyo!
My initial thought:
So apparently there is at least one living right over by Harajuku… or was, just a few years back.
Why are there tanuki figurines outside of some businesses?
In Japanese folklore, tanuki are associated with good fortune and wealth. It stands to reason, therefore, that they would attract lots of paying customers to your shop:
Step 1: Place big tanuki figurine outside your shop
Step 2: Profit
In addition to their use as good luck charms, tanuki figurines are also popular as decorative items and souvenirs. Many tourists and visitors to Japan like to buy tanuki figurines as a way to remember their trip and take a piece of Japanese culture home with them.
Saying tanuki in Japanese
In Japanese, “tanuki” is written with a single kanji, as 狸 (tanuki), or sometimes in katakana, as タヌキ (tanuki).
The kanji isn’t a general-use character, but it’s not too hard to learn if you use mnemonics. The left side means something like “dog”, and the right side means “countryside village”, and the “dog of a countryside village” is a racoon dog — a 狸 (tanuki)!
Back when I lived in Sapporo, I used to walk through 狸小路 (tanuki kouji // Tanuki Alley), which is a huge shopping area, almost every day. I love it there — definitely recommended for a stroll if you’re visiting.
Good luck spotting 狸 (tanuki)!
Learn about them and other mythical tales while honing your Japanese skills at NativShark.