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Are you okay, Tanuki? – The Japanese Raccoon Dog in Legends and Popular Culture

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/15 Animal, Traditional Culture , , ,

Last time, we talked about the sly kitsune or the Japanese fox. In this post, we will feature another animal that is popular in Japanese legends and myths and just like the kitsune, is sometimes depicted as a trickster, the tanuki or the Japanese raccoon dog.

Tanuki, Not Your Ordinary Raccoon

Though they look like raccoons, the Japanese raccoon dog or known as tanuki(狸) in Japanese, scientifically speaking, belongs to the family Nyctereutes which is known as the ancestors of Canidae or the family of dogs, wolves, and foxes. Generally, the raccoon dog belongs to procyonoides species but some scientists believe that the Japanese raccoon dog particularly belongs to the subspecies viverrinus.

real life tanuki

The tanuki looks like a raccoon but it actually belongs to the same family as dogs, wolves and foxes. (Photo by Guilhem Vellut on Flickr)

Comparing the Tanuki and Kitsune

The tanuki has been seen in Japanese legends and myths since a long time ago. The tanuki in myths and legends is often called the bake-danuki(化け狸) and is considered as a yōkai or a supernatural being. Unlike the kitsune, which legends can be traced back that it is from China, the legends of tanuki is unique to Japan. The tanuki’s known powers and abilities are similar to that of the kitsune’s: shapeshifting, conjuring, and disguise. The table below shows the similarities and differences of that of the tanuki and the kitsune.

Description/Ability

Kitsune Tanuki

Can possess people

Haunts houses, locations

Can shift into a human and inanimate objects

Often assumes form of a beautiful woman

Gains power as it ages

Both good and bad

Dogs are mortal enemies

Holds/possesses jewel

Needs object to transform

Nocturnal

Howling is bad omen

Turns pebbles into gold, turns dung into food

Sees future

Gains tail as it ages

Divine connection

Can conjure fire and lights

Table from TANUKI in Japanese Artwork

The kitsune loves to shape-shift into a living being, usually a human but the tanuki loves to shape-shift into inanimate objects. Also, the reason for shape-shifting for the kitsune and tanuki is different. While the kitsune disguises their selves as humans to tempt humans and give them what they want, the tanuki shape-shifts to fool people and make them look stupid.

Legends of the tanuki are told in different places in Japan but the most popular among them are Danzaburou-danuki of Niigata Prefecture, Shibaemon-tanuki of Hyōgo Prefecture, and Yashima no Hage-tanuki of Kagawa Prefecture. Though these stories may seem out-of-this-world, some are actually exaggerated stories of actual people and happenings.

In the next post, we will feature how the tanuki is portrayed in modern and popular culture.

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