What is a Tanuki?
A Tanuki (or Japanese Raccoon Dog) is a real animal with a reputation for magic and mischief. These little fur-balls rarely cause serious harm to humans—some might say this is because they aren’t clever enough to fabricate truly dangerous plots—but they are still full of pranks and surprises.
Raccoon Dogs, not surprisingly, look like a cross between a raccoon and a small dog. Although they are relatively small animals, their fur is so long and puffy that it can make them look very plump. A mask of black fur wraps around their eyes, giving them the appearance of a trickster or bandit. They have dog-like paws and a short, puffy tail.
Tanukis, who are gifted with magical power, have eight special traits that differentiate them from their common brethren. They wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect themselves from bad luck and bad weather. They hold a bottle of sake, a popular alcohol made of rice, in one hand, which symbolizes virtue, and in the other hand, they hold a promissory note which symbolizes trust. They have large eyes to survey their world and make decisions, big fluffy tails to give them strength and agility, large scrotums which represent wealth, and a large stomach which symbolizes tranquility and decisiveness. Finally, they wear a playful, friendly smile, inviting humans to join them in their games.
Raccoon Dogs are masters of illusion. They can shapeshift into any form they choose: from a crooked old woman to a bottle of white wine. When they are in disguise, they like to use little rhymes to lure people into their games, which inevitably end in inconvenience or embarrassment.
These devious magicians are also good at transporting people and casting small curses. They like to trick people into touching enchanted objects, like umbrellas or rice cakes, which will cause the person to be transported into the distant wilderness. Their favorite curses cause inconvenience by forcing people to run around hills or chase after enchanted objects.
The Japanese Raccoon Dog is a real species, but its family tree is hotly debated by scientists. It is undoubtedly a close relative of the Asian Raccoon Dog, but many scientists believe it is a separate species.
To complicate matters, the name Tanuki, which is usually attached to folklore’s magical Racoon Dogs, has a different meaning in some dialects. In some regions, Tanuki may refer to raccoons, badgers, or wildcats.
The inspiration for the magical Tanuki is believed to come from China, where people believed in god-like, shape-shifting wildcats, usually leopards. Because Japan didn’t have any animals quite like the fearsome leopard, Japanese scholars transferred the power to other creatures like stray cats, badgers, weasels, and even wild boars. Eventually, the Fox and the Raccoon Dog became the most popular vessels for these magical powers, and they were revered as gods who ruled over nature.
When Buddhism took root in Japan, deifying animals began to be seen as primitive. Only animals like foxes and snakes, who were associated with the gods, could be thought of as powerful. The Raccoon Dog, who was once treated like a god, became a bumbling trickster with laughable powers.
Although most of the Tanuki’s stories played out in folktales and oral legend, he does appear in some important pieces of Japanese literature like the Nihon Shoki, Nihon Ryoiki, and Uji Shui Monogataria.
Raccoon Dogs appear in some beautiful Japanese pen and ink drawings and paintings, but by far the most popular medium for depicting these animals is statuary. Small, jolly-looking Tanuki are as popular in Japanese gardens as gnomes are in Western gardens.
The Tanuki has also claimed a place in today’s video games, appearing in popular games like Animal Crossing and the Super Mario series.