More About Our Mascot – The Magical Shape-shifting Tanuki


The magical shape-shifting Tanuki is clearly a composite creature. The original evil parts come from old China and its fox lore (introduced to Japan between the 4th-7th centuries CE). The newer tamer parts, such as the big belly, belly drumming, giant scrotum, and sake bottle can be traced to late Edo-era Japan (18th-19th centuries), while the commercialized benevolent parts (promissory note, straw hat) emerged in Japanese artwork around the beginning of the 20th century. In general, the goofy-looking Tanuki we are familiar with today is a recent creation, mostly Japanese. But by carefully investigating Tanuki’s remote origins from China, we can demarcate original property from a borrowed property. This endeavor, in my mind, leads to a greater appreciation of Japan’s penchant for creating imaginative, playful, and endearing myths. The Chinese influence on Japanese folklore, without doubt, is enormous. Yet the Japanese are equally adept at creating their own lore, as exemplified by their homespun Tanuki legends.

Mythical & Magical Tanuki

The fox-like Tanuki appears often in Japanese folklore as shape-shifters with supernatural powers and mischievous tendencies. In their earliest malevolent manifestations (transmitted via Chinese fox lore to Japan by at least the 7th century CE), Tanuki assumed human form, haunted and possessed people, and was considered omens of misfortune. Many centuries later in Japan, they evolved into irrepressible tricksters, aiming their illusory magic and mystifying belly-drum music at unwary travelers, hunters, woodsmen, and monks. Today, the Tanuki is cheerful, lovable, and benevolent rogues who bring prosperity and business success. For more on Tanuki’s metamorphosis from bad guy to good guy, see Tanuki Origins. Ceramic statues of Tanuki are found everywhere in modern Japan, especially outside bars and restaurants, where a pudgy Tanuki effigy typically beckons drinkers and diners to enter and spend generously (a role similar to Maneki Neko, the Beckoning Cat, who stands outside retail establishments.) In his modern form, the fun-loving Tanuki is commonly depicted with a big tummy, a straw hat, a bewildered facial expression (he is easily duped), a giant scrotum, a staff attached to a sake flask, and a promissory note (that he never pays). Many of these attributes suggest his money was wasted on wine, women, and food (but this is incorrect; see below). More surprisingly, most of these attributes were created in very modern times (in the last three centuries; see Tanuki in Modern Times). Although the Japanese continue to classify Tanuki as a yōkai 妖怪 (monster, spirit, specter, fantastic/strange being), the creature today is no longer frightening or mysterious. Instead, it has shape-changed into a harmless and amusing fellow, one more interested in encouraging generosity and cheerfulness among winners and diners than in annoying humankind with its tricks. Tanuki is also portrayed as cute and lovable characters in modern cartoons and movies — even as mascots in commercial campaigns. For instance, the former Tokyo-Mitsubishi Bank not long ago used the Tanuki (and a Kappa river imp) to promote its DC credit card (a campaign since ended). These topics are explored below.

Real Life Tanuki

The Tanuki is also a real animal. It is often confused with the badger (ana-guma) and the raccoon (arai-guma). It is neither — it is an atypical species of dog that can grow up to 60 cm. in length, with distinctive stripes of black fur under its eyes. In old Japan, Tanuki was hunted for their meat (reputed to have medicinal qualities), their fur (used for brushes and clothing) and their scrotal skin (used as a malleable sack for hammering gold into gold leaf). They live in burrows, and come out after sunset until the wee hours of the morning. Says the Yamasa Institute, Center for Japanese Studies Newsletter (Sept. 15, 2001): “As tanuki have moved into suburban and even urban areas in Japan during the 1980s and 1990s, they have taken to feeding at rubbish dumps and are even fed by local people in their gardens, which is one reason why they are associated with racoons who thrive on the rubbish littering many cities…..the future of the Tanuki [in Japan] is uncertain as many are afflicted with sarcoptic mange, a condition caused by a parasitic mite.” <end quote> Today (Oct. 16, 2011) I spoke with a representative of a cat-lovers group from Yokohama, one helping to find homes for stray cats, and she said many tanuki now inhabit the area, many steal the food set out for the cats, and many suffer from mange. To help the suffering tanuki, they inject a sweet bread with medicine (a bread the cats will not eat) and mix it together with food for the cats. This strategy has cured “a few tanuki” of mange. The Tanuki is reportedly native to Japan, southeastern Siberia, and Manchuria. Some were introduced to western parts of the Soviet Union for fur farming in the 1950s, and have since spread into Scandinavia and as far south as France. Scientific Name: Canis Procyonoides, Canis Viverrinus, Nyctereutes Procyonoides. Belongs to dog family. Canini (related to wolves) and Vulpini (related to foxes).

Mistranslations of Tanuki

Confused Naming Conventions

Neither the badger nor the raccoon (raccoon) figure prominently in Chinese or Japanese folklore or artwork. Nonetheless, for decades, Western scholars have mistranslated Tanuki as “badger” or “raccoon-dog.” This is clearly wrong, but can be forgiven — the Tanuki does, in fact, look badger-like, raccoon-like, and fox-like. Furthermore, such mistranslations are compounded by the Japanese themselves, who have likewise confused these animals in their folklore and artwork. For all practical purposes, the moniker “TANUKI” includes other similar creatures like the badger, raccoon, the mujina 貉 and mami 貒 (other names for Tanuki in some Japanese localities), wild mountain dogs and cats, and most other fox-like creatures. This confusion is sometimes the source of great amusement. In Tochigi Prefecture, for example, the Tanuki is called “Mujina.” In 1924, in the so-called Tanuki-Mujina Incident たぬき・むじな事件, Tochigi authorities prohibited the hunting of Tanuki and promptly arrested one hunter — who claimed he was out hunting mujina. The man was taken to trial, but eventually acquitted (on 9 June 1925). His defense argued that hunting of “mujina” was not prohibited by law, that the hunter’s intention was to pursue mujina, and therefore, by law, he was not guilty of any offense. In Japan’s northern Kanto region, Tanuki is known as MUJINA. In the Tokyo area, the creature is called MAMI. In the Kinki region (around Osaka), the beast is referred to as TANUKI.

By the National Institute of Japanese Literature, Mitsuru Aida