Unlocking the Mysterious Tanuki: Exploring Japan's Mischievous Yokai

by Nana Young
Tanuki sculpture at Kameoka Torokko

To the average person, the tanuki may be just another Asian raccoon dog, but to the people of Japan, it's a supernatural being, mischievous trickster, and cultural icon. Let’s take a stroll through ancient Japanese mythology and uncover the tales associated with the tanuki, along with its true facts.

Introduction to Tanuki: Japan's Enigmatic Folklore Creature

Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus)

The tanuki, also known as the Japanese raccoon dog, is a species of wild canid animal that’s native to Japan. Tanuki is one of two members of the Nyctereutes genus, the other being the common raccoon dog found in East Asia. In the past, people categorized tanuki as a subspecies of the common raccoon dog, but overtime, it became clear that its features and appearance were distinct enough to warrant its own separate species.

Upon first glance, the tanuki looks like a raccoon, thanks to its masked face and thick fur. However, when you take a closer look, you will find that it’s actually a dog. Scientists have attributed the similarities between the two animals to convergent evolution. But the ancient Japanese people, who found it difficult to tell what they were seeing, began to associate the tanuki with trickery and deceit. This resulted in its iconic role in Japanese folklore.

In Japan, the tanuki is one of the most infamous yokai (supernatural beings). A shapeshifter and master of disguise, it plays a major role in traditional mythology, appearing in countless works of art and ancestral folklore.

Tanuki in Japanese Mythology: Origins and Legends

Big Japanese Tanuki statue in a traditional garden within a shrine.

In classic folklore and legends, the tanuki takes the form of a yokai commonly called  bake-danuki. The inspiration for these Japanese legends was said to be supernatural, shapeshifting wild cats and foxes from Chinese mythology. 

Its earliest appearance in Japanese mythology came in the 8th century, during the Nara period (710–794), where it was written into a chapter about Empress Suiko in the second-oldest book centered around Japan’s history. Many historians today still use the book Nihon Shoki, also known as The Chronicles of Japan, to provide insights into ancient Japan.

The tanuki made many more appearances in Japanese folklore, including the tales of Uji Shūi Monogatari, a literary collection of 13th-century Japanese tales. It also became the center of various legends from different regions of the country, such as Sado’s Danzaburou-danuki, Awa’s Kincho Tanuki Gassen, and Kagawa’s Yashima no Hage-tanuki.

The tanuki’s reputation in Japanese mythology is very similar to that of the kitsune (foxes), another trickster and shapeshifting yokai. According to Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, the tanuki is a deity and protector of nature. 

Physical Characteristics of Tanuki: Features and Appearance

Many of old tanuki statues standing at the steel fence of Torokko Hotsukyo Station.

The physical appearance of the tanuki is both unique and bizarre. It has a shape similar to that of a fox and markings on its fur that resemble a raccoon’s. There is a rare type of tanuki with white fur, but the majority of them have black and white colors. The tanuki has a large belly and prominent testicles. Those last two features are often exaggerated in artistic depictions, creating amusement and confusion among audiences. They’re said to drum on their bellies to create loud sounds known by the onomatopoeic name “Pompoko.”

As a member of the canid species, the tanuki is similar to the common racoon, with a few differences. Firstly, its stomach is not as big as that of its Asian cousin. It also has shorter fur. Tanuki also resembles a raccoon but has no black forehead stripe or tail stripes like the raccoon. It also has four digits, as most dogs, wolves, and foxes do, unlike the raccoon’s five digits.

Tanuki Yōkai: Understanding Yokai Spirits in Japanese Culture

It is an illustration of traditional Japanese youkai.

Yokai is a simplified term that refers to all manner of supernatural creatures in Japanese culture and folklore. In English, yokai translates to strange apparition. These creatures are said to cross between the human and spirit world at will. Examples of yokai include ghosts, shapeshifters, monsters, demons, kitsune, and, of course, the tanuki. 

The behavior of the yokai varies from cheerful and friendly to scary and dangerous. Each type of yokai is said to have specific supernatural powers, such as shapeshifting, flying, extreme strength, teleportation, and clairvoyance.

Tales and legends surrounding yokai have been elements of public entertainment since the Middle Ages. They became more structured and formalized in the Edo period. These days, yokai play a major role in modern Japanese pop culture, appearing in anime, manga, movies, and literature. As one of the most iconic and beloved Yokai creatures, the tanuki spirit is also popular in today’s media, where it has been closely associated with the kitsune. Its intriguing powers and abilities allow creators to incorporate some of the funniest plots.

Tanuki Powers and Abilities: Shapeshifting and Magic

Dozens of ceramic statues of racoon dogs called tanuki in Shigaraki in Shiga Prefecture, Japan.

According to ancient mythology, there are several supernatural powers and abilities attributed to the tanuki. In fact, most people consider the raccoon dog to be the most powerful type of yokai. Let’s take a quick look at some of these powers and how they influence the tanuki’s behavior.

  • Shapeshifting: The tanuki can take any shape or form it wants, including rabbits (usagi tanuki), kettles, and clothes. This allows it to transform into human beings on several occasions. Most times, when the tanuki shapeshifts into a human, it does so to cause mischief by drinking, cheating, gambling, lying, and more. Some tanuki often transform into inanimate objects for the sole purpose of startling humans.

  • Illusion magic: As if shapeshifting wasn’t enough ammunition for such a deceitful and mischievous character, the tanuki can also create illusions, strengthening its role as the ultimate trickster.

  • Transformative magic: The tanuki cements its list of deceitful supernatural abilities with the power to transform inanimate objects into whatever it wants.

  • High Intelligence: Only the kitsune can rival the tanuki in terms of cunning. It’s just as smart as any human and uses its intelligence to torment and tease people. The tanuki is also capable of speech.

  • Possession: The darker versions of the tanuki would possess humans and cause a lot of problems for the community.

Tanuki in Art and Literature: Depictions Across Japanese Culture

A statue of mythical Japanese raccoon called Tanuki in front of a restaurant.

The portrayal of Tanuki in traditional Japanese art and literature almost always references its trickster nature. Its actions in these depictions range from lovable pranks, like in the Bunbukuchagama tale, to malicious tricks, like in the Shojoji Tanuki Bayashi tale. In the Bunbukuchagama, it transforms into a kettle and performs tricks to help a poor man earn a living. However, in Shojoji Tanuki Bayashi, the antics of the tanuki scare away many priests, even leading to the death of one of them who enters into a belly-drumming competition with a group of tanuki.

Early depictions of tanuki appearances were made via woodblock prints, art pieces that are still available to this day. The process of making these prints is a long and laborious one, but highly skilled artists have been pulling it off for centuries. These prints show tanuki creatures having large bellies or comically exaggerated testicles. Some showcase them interacting with humans or drinking their favorite beverage, sake. Others depict them eating tempura, udon, or soba noodles.

Today, there are statues of the tanuki in various establishments, particularly bars and restaurants, where the creature serves as a mascot. Modern popular media have also embraced the tanuki and its interesting way of life. We’ll reveal more about that later in this post.

Tanuki Legends and Tales: Famous Stories and Folklore

tanuki raccoon dog sculptures standing in the garden in Shigaraki Pottery Village

Besides the Bunbukuchagama and Shojoji Tanuki Bayashi, there are many other popular Tanuki legends and tales from Japanese folklore, showcasing the creature's cunning tricks, humorous antics, and sometimes benevolent, sometimes mischievous nature. The Kachi-kachi Yama tale tells the story of an old, childless couple frequently taunted by a raccoon dog. One day, the old man manages to capture this creature and hands it to his wife to cook into tanuki jiru (tanuki soup). Unfortunately, the creature tricks the old woman into releasing him and kills her with a mill hammer. This story has been retold in several darker versions.

Another popular and recurring legend is that of the tanuki shape shifting into a beautiful woman to prank passersby. Although many claim that the creature gets its magic from a leaf placed on its head, some stories have revealed the tanuki’s testicles (or scrotum) to be the true source of its magical powers, much like the tails of a kitsune. The legendary tanuki can stretch its scrotum to any shape or size it chooses, and it has been transformed into a boat, parachute, and blanket in various tales.

Modern perceptions of the tanuki are not as dark as they were in the past. The yokai are now viewed less as monster tanuki and more as trickster tanuki. However, they're still considered mischievous creatures that should never be trusted. According to legend, raccoon dogs will beat their large belly drums to lure people deep into the woods until they get lost. Its large belly remains a prominent part of its depictions, especially with tanuki statues.

Tanuki Statues: Guardians of Prosperity and Fortune

Osaka, Japan city street at night with statues sculptures decoration of Tanuki

Despite their trickster nature, Japanese customs consider them to be symbols of good luck, prosperity, and wealth. The creature's body is rounded, indicating that it rarely skips meals or opportunities to enjoy itself, which supports this belief. The tanuki’s symbolism is the reason statues of it are often found outside businesses and homes in Japan.

Most of these statues also showcase the mythological features of the tanuki, such as its big belly and large testicles. The raccoon dog also carries a flask of sake, which it periodically offers to onlookers as it travels. Another common feature of these statues is the straw hat, which the tanuki wears as it roams the forest and its nearby communities in search of its next big prank. Miniature versions of the tanuki statue are sold in various shops across the country. They serve as souvenirs and good-luck charms. 

Tanuki in Modern Culture: Pop Culture References and Adaptations

Tom Nook soft plush toy from Animal Crossing

The tanuki also has an enduring presence in modern Japanese culture, including appearances in anime, manga, video games, and advertising. Below is a list of some of its most notable appearances:

  • Super Mario series: In several entries of Nintendo’s Super Mario video game series, including Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario Kart 8, and Super Mario 3D World, the players can have Mario wear a “Tanooki Suit” that gives him new abilities.

  • Animal Crossing series: Tom Nook and his two employers, Timmy and Tommy, are tanuki characters in the Animal Crossing video games.

  • Zootopia: In the version of the animated film released in Japan, the newscaster is a tanuki.

  • InuYasha: Hachiemon is a shapeshifting friend and assistant to Miroku.

  • Laughing Under the Clouds: One of the most friendly characters in the manga series is a tanuki called Gerokichi.

  • GitLab: The company launched a tanuki-themed logo in 2015.

Tanuki Recipes: Culinary Delights Inspired by the Yokai

Tanuki soba is served with tempura crusts on top of the soba in a hot soup

There are many culinary creations both inside and outside of Japan that draw inspiration from Tanuki folklore. These dishes do not contain actual tanuki meat, but they feature ingredients associated with the creature’s legendary powers. For instance, both “tanuki noodles” and “kitsune noodles” are terms referring to different varieties of udon and soba. The kitsune variant has fried tofu, while the tanuki variant has fried tempura batter, which is a common meal for the mystical creature in traditional lore. Another popular culinary dessert is the tanuki cake, a dessert that’s designed to look like a tanuki.

Tanuki Tourism: Exploring Tanuki Hotspots in Japan

View of Yanagimori Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward.

These creatures are native to many regions of Japan. However, one of the best places to find Japanese raccoon dogs in real life is on Miyajima Island. You can easily spot these creatures around the local forest area. White tanuki are also common on the island, even though they’re extremely rare in other parts of the country.

Also, there are several Shinto shrines dedicated to the furry creature. Chingodo Shrine on Denboin Street, Asakusa, Tokyo, is one of the most famous. Yanagimori Shrine is another tanuki-dedicated shrine with several iconic statues of the creature on its grounds. The Tamon-ji or Tanuki Temple, also lies in Tokyo and is a great place to explore its role in Japanese history.

Conclusion: Embracing the Mystique of Tanuki Folklore

Shigaraki ware raccoon dog.Japanese antiques

The rich tapestry of tanuki folklore makes it one of the most intriguing creatures in Japan, rivaled only by the kitsune. As a symbol of wealth and good fortune, as well as an inspiration for various culinary delights, the Japanese raccoon dog is also a prominent part of most households and businesses in the country.

It’s never a good idea to trust the mischievous tanuki, but you can definitely trust Bokksu Boutique to always offer authentic Japanese gift items, snacks, and treats.


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