What is a Tanuki? Japan’s Strangest Myth

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Along with Kitsune (Japanese fox), the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) is also a strange yokai (Japanese ghosts or spirit) famous for its ability to transform in Japanese folklore. However, if kitsune or the Japanese kappa are thought of as more dangerous and scheming yokai, the tanuki is more mischievous and lovable, possessing a lot of magic but being mostly harmless to humans. In fact, the tanuki is known as the mascot of prosperity in Japan. 

Let’s take a look at the tanuki’s characteristics and the myths surrounding it in ancient Japanese legends. 

What is a Tanuki?

At first glance, tanuki look like a cat bear, but they are actually raccoons with sharp teeth. According to legend, tanuki are well-adapted to various environments, from mountain forests to urban areas, and possess a variety of magical abilities. Unlike foxes who appear in the myths of many countries around the world, Tanuki is only found in Japan. 

They were actually mentioned in the famous legend “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons”, which has been handed down from the Heian period (794–1185) to the Muromachi period (1336–1573).

Over time, during the Taisho period (1912-1926) the tanuki changed from a demon to a very lovely figure said to bring good luck and good fortune for statue owners. Nowadays, he is such a portrait of generosity and cheerfulness that his statues are often seen in outside restaurants to attract customers and to pray for business prosperity. 

Two real-life tanuki, also known as raccoon dogs, sit together on all fours on a mountain in Japan with many leaves, green and brown around them.
Much like the kitsune, this myth is based off of a real animal often called the raccoon dog in English. Image via Shutterstock

Some people interpret its luck by using homophony. Ta「他」(other things) and nuki-「抜き」(to omit) can ultimately be understood as abandoning all else and leaving only the good things. 

Tanuki is known in the West mainly through video games such as Super Mario Bros 3. The Mario character can use an outfit called the Tanooki Suit, giving him the ability to fly and transform into a statue. Meanwhile, Animal Crossing players may recognize this creature thanks to Tom Nook.

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The Eight Symbolic meanings of Tanuki statue

When it comes to the Tanuki statue, its image has changed to something somewhat different from reality. The features on the statue represent 8 signs of good luck and are called “hassoengi“(八相縁).

  • A hat to protect yourself from trouble and unexpected accidents.
  • Big eyes help observe and pay attention to everything around to make the right decisions.
  • A smiley face represents friendliness and being kind to others.
  • Their wine bottle contains Japanese sake (rice wine) with the meaning of learning the qualities and character of a person who does not have to worry about eating.
  • The book is a place to record cash in and out. This is an important item to create trust when borrowing money with the desire to build a trusting relationship between people.
  • The belly drum represents a steady, calm, and daring attitude when handling situations.
  • The “golden bags” represent luck that will get better and better and create more and more money or fortune.
  • Their big tail helps to support the balance of the body, implying stability. It also represents the end, so it also has another meaning of wishing everything to end firmly.
A bowl of hot tanuki soba, called so because of the golden tempura fried bits decorating half of the dish with the other half having green onions and fish cakes on top.
The “golden bags” of this creature are so famous that tanuki soba (buckwheat noodles with fried batter bits) is named so because of the golden bits of fried batter over the noodles. Image via Shutterstock

Tanuki’s powers in Japanese legends 

There are many legends about Tanuki, its personality, and its magical power. Although they often tease humans, they are also known for their mildness, willing to help those who treat them well. 

Transformation

The tanuki’s most outstanding power is transformation. They’re very fond of transforming into humans and imitating human lifestyles, especially bad habits. Tanuki often pretend to be human beings who enjoy drinking, gambling, cheating, stealing, and lying. They’ve even impersonated monks who studied Buddhism and taught it to people. 

Thanks to his transformation techniques as well as his intelligence and quick adaptability, these creatures can live almost a lifetime in human guise without being easily spotted.

Mischief Making

However, one of the more popular hobbies of these creatures is pranking humans. They can turn into household items to tease you, turn into giant monsters to scare you, or turn leaves into money to cheat. 

Eleven tanuki statues stand in a shop with tags on each one in varying sizes, poses, and expressions, all with hats, sake bottles, and other normal tanuki symbls.
These little guys may be known as tricksters, but their statues can be found all across Japan as a symbol of fortune. Image via Shutterstock

Tanuki also often make jokes about humans, such as pretending to talk to farmers in the dark or making fishermen think their nets are already full of fish, but the fishing nets are actually empty.

They also often turn into local officials, go to houses, and play a lot of weird tricks to prank the owner. 

It is said that there is a way to find out if a person is actually a tanuki based on the kimono he is wearing. Also, if he walks in the rain without getting wet, it must be a tanuki. Also, their magic becomes unstable when he is distracted, so his tail is easily exposed.

The Golden Bags

An interesting characteristic that comes to mind when anyone thinks of a takuni is its “golden bags”. According to legend, this creature can stretch the skin in that area as wide as eight tatami mats. The pulled skin was described by ancient people as being able to turn into a sail, fishing net, swimming pool, or even a shield against an enemy.

Have you seen a tanuki in real life in Japan? What other myths around this unique creature have you heard about? Let us know in the comments below!

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