Tanuki (狸 or タヌキ?) is the common Japanese name for the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus). They have been part of Japanese folklore since ancient times. The legendary tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded.
Statues of tanuki can be found outside many Japanese temples and restaurants, especially noodle shops. These statues often wear big, cone-shaped hats and carry bottles of sake in one hand, and a promissory note or empty purse in the other hand. Tanuki statues always have large bellies. The statues also usually show humorously large testicles, typically hanging down to the floor or ground, although this feature is sometimes omitted in contemporary sculpture.
The comical image of the tanuki is thought to have developed during the Kamakura era. The actual wild tanuki has disproportionately large testicles, a feature that has inspired humorous exaggeration in artistic depictions. Tanuki may be shown with their testicles flung over their backs like travellers' packs, or using them as drums. As tanuki are also typically depicted as having large bellies, they may be depicted as drumming on their bellies instead of their testicles — particularly in contemporary art.
During the Kamakura and Muromachi eras, some stories began to include more sinister tanuki. The Otogizoshi story of "Kachi-kachi Yama" features a tanuki that clubs an old lady to death and serves her to her unknowing husband as "old lady soup," an ironic twist on the folkloric recipe known as "tanuki soup." Other stories report tanuki as being harmless and productive members of society. Several shrines have stories of past priests who were tanuki in disguise. Shapeshifting tanuki are sometimes believed to be tsukumogami, a transformation of the souls of household goods that were used for 100 years or more.
A popular tale known as Bunbuku chagama is about a tanuki who fooled a monk by transforming into a tea-kettle. Another is about a tanuki who tricked a hunter by disguising his arms as tree boughs, until he spread both arms at the same time and fell off the tree. Tanuki are said to cheat merchants with leaves they have magically disguised as paper money. Some stories describe tanuki as using leaves as part of their own shape-shifting magic.
The tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune, possibly created to coincide to the "Hachi" symbol (meaning eight) often found on the sake bottles the statues hold.
The eight traits are: a hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather; big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions; a sake bottle that represents virtue; a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved; over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck; a promissory note that represents trust or confidence; a big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness; and a friendly smile.
A common schoolyard song in Japan (the tune of which can be heard in the arcade game Ponpoko and a variation of which is sung in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko) makes explicit reference to the tanuki's anatomy:
- Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
- Kaze mo nai no ni,
- Bura bura
Roughly translated, this means "Tan-tan-tanuki's testicles, there isn't even any wind but still go swing-swing-swing." It continues for several verses, with many regional variations. It is sung to the melody of an American Baptist hymn called "Shall We Gather at the River?".
In metalworking, tanuki skins were often used for thinning gold. As a result, tanuki became associated with precious metals and metalwork. Small tanuki statues were marketed as front yard decoration and good luck charm for bringing in prosperity. Also, this is why tanuki is described as having large kintama (金玉 literally gold ball, meaning testicles in casual Japanese).
While tanuki are prominent in Japanese folklore and proverbs, they were not always distinguished from other animals. In local dialects, tanuki and mujina (狢, kyujitai: 貉) can refer to raccoon dogs or badgers. An animal known as tanuki in one region may be known as mujina in another region. In modern Tokyo standard dialect, tanuki refers to raccoon dogs and anaguma refers to badgers. Regional dishes known as tanuki-jiru ("tanuki soup") may contain either raccoon dog or badger, although the taste of the latter is often preferred.
Originally, the kanji for tanuki, 狸 (kyujitai: 貍) was used to refer to other mid-sized mammals, mostly wild cats. Since wild cats live only in limited regions of Japan (e.g. Iriomote, Okinawa), it is believed that the characters began to be used to mean "tanuki" instead starting around the Japanese feudal era. This shift in meaning, along with the rarity of the raccoon dog outside Japan, may have contributed to confusion over the proper translation of "tanuki" into other languages.
In Japanese slang, tanuki gao ("tanuki face") can refer to a face that looks like that of the animal, or a person's facial expression of feigned ignorance. Kitsune gao ("fox face") refers to women with narrow faces, close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones.
In popular culture
Script error Tanuki have appeared in various media:
- Both the animals and the mythic Tanuki play a prominent role in Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito.
- All the main characters in Pom Poko are shape-shifting tanuki (mistranslated as raccoons in the English dub) who are trying to save their habitat from urban development. Japanese legends about tanuki and kitsune shapeshifting feature heavily throughout the movie. The tanuki are mistranslated in the film as raccoons in the dub and official subtitles.
- Tom Nook, the shopkeeper in Animal Crossing, is a tanuki (although translated as a raccoon) and the furniture and other objects that he buys and sells transform into leaves when stored in a player's inventory. Tom Nook's nephews, Timmy and Tommy, are also tanuki.
- In the Renkin 3-kyū Magical ? Pokān episode "The Hot Spell is the Spontaneous Onsen," the four princesses encounter Tanuki in the form of women that ended up luring the girls into a hot spring that they were looking for and end up stealing their clothes near the end of the episode. When they noticed the tanuki in their clothes close to the end of the episode, Uma claims that this is what they meant by being "tricked by a Tanuki."
- Entry on "tanuki" at The Obakemono Project
- Tanuki at The Portal of Transformation
- Entry on "tanuki" at The A-Z Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Statuary
- "How the Wicked Tanuki was Punished" a folktale collected by Andrew Lang.