A Guide to Japanese Monsters: Tanuki
What are Tanuki?
The tanuki is an animal known as a racoon dog that is native to Japan. It has thick fur, a bushy tail, a mask of white around the eyes, and a body shape and size that is similar to the racoon. The tanuki may resemble the racoon, but it is from a different family, known as Canidae, and comes from East Asia rather than North America. In fact, the tanuki is related more closely to foxes, wolves, and dogs than to racoons. Tanuki are quite social animals that often live in mated pairs and hibernate during the winter.
Tanuki in Japanese Mythology
In folklore, tanuki are considered Japanese mythological creatures with supernatural abilities (yōkai). They feature heavily in legends as bake-danuki, which literally means “monster tanuki.” The oldest tales depict tanuki as evil doers who possess humans and bear bad omens. Later tales portray tanuki in an endearing and favorable way—more of a harmless prankster and symbol of prosperity. In fact, a better translation than “monster tanuki” is “trickster tanuki” because in most stories these Japanese mythical creatures are harmless except for their penchant for deception.
According to folktales, tanuki are merry mischief makers. They beat their big belly drums deep in the forest to scare unsuspecting hunters and woodsmen, just for the fun of watching them flee and stumble and lose their way. Other legends highlight their ability to shape-shift, usually just to mess with humans. One such tale is Shirodokkuri, or White Wine Bottle. The tanuki transformed itself into a white wine bottle. Whenever someone tried to grab it, it would roll around and never get caught.
A very famous legend is Bunbuka Chagama, which dates back to the 16th century. In one version, a priest places a teakettle (chagama) on the hearth and it turns into a half-tanuki, half-teakettle creature. The priest decides to sell it to a passing peddler. The peddler finds out about the tanuki’s supernatural abilities, and the chagama and peddler turn these powers into profit by having the tanuki perform tricks for money. The tanuki ends up having a comfortable life with the peddler, who shares his food and treats the tanuki well.
Tanuki in Art
In the traditional art of Japan, the tanuki has a leaf on its forehead. The leaf symbolizes nature, which the tanuki gets its power from. More modern art portrays tanuki with a big belly to show its jovial nature and love of food and drink. The tanuki also dons a straw hat, a bottle of sake, and an IOU note that it never pays. This is in reference to an old song about the tanuki stealing sake on a rainy night.
One startling feature is that the tanuki is often shown with large male parts. This comes from the old practice of hammering gold leaf inside tanuki scrotum, which is legendarily strong but stretchy. Balls of gold (kin no tama) and the slang word for testicles (kintama) are part of the word play. Now the well-endowed body part simply represents stretching one’s dollar.
It’s no wonder the cute but complex tanuki has appeared in another more modern artform—movies and video games. The Studio Ghibli movie, Pom Poko, features a posse of tanuki who band together to save their forest home from urban expansion using all the guile and magic they can muster. In Super Mario Bros 3, a “tanooki” suit enables Mario to outwit enemies by turning into statues, levitating, or smacking opponents with their tail.
Tanuki Objects and Gifts
Because of their mythical ability to attract wealth and tendency to be jovial, tanuki statues are frequently found around bars, restaurants, and stores. Since tanuki are irresistibly adorable in real life, it’s also no surprise that Japanese people love to cuddle up to tanuki stuffed animals and buy tanuki-themed toys. Tanuki pop up in quite a few products and merchandise in Japan.
Did you know that Pokémon is an abbreviation of Pocket Monster? And did you know that many of the individual characters are inspired by mythical creatures like the tanuki or bake-danuki? Takuni is a Pokémon creature that is based on the tanuki. Takuni has a green leaf on its head, a bushy tail, and racoon-like eyes. Whiscash is based on the Namazu, a giant catfish that causes earthquakes.
Pokémon-inspired gifts from Bokksu Boutique are perfect for people who appreciate the complexity and playfulness that Japanese monsters like tanuki are known for. For example, Pokemon Origami are a crafty gift to give someone in your life who enjoys the art of paper folding.
If more socializing is your thing, The Pokémon Chopsticks Learning Game teaches chopstick skills while also providing hours of entertainment.
Or how about the Pokémon Lacquerware Bowl? It will make you feel like the characters Pikachu, Eevee, and Snorlax are your breakfast companions while you eat your cereal.
If you prefer savory foods, the Pokémon Noodle: Soy Sauce Flavor instant ramen will make you think of your new favorite Pokémon card, Takuni, as you slurp your soup.
By Megan Taylor Stephens