The Tanuki is a fictional animal from Japanese folklore resembling a raccoon dog. It is used as a good luck charm, bringing prosperity and fortune. It is not uncommon to see sculptures of this mysterious animal all over Japan. It is one of the most deeply rooted and ancient traditions in the land of the rising sun.
The tanuki is closely related to another key character in Japanese folklore, the fox, but has always been viewed in a much more positive light. Their fame speaks for itself, they are playful, restless, mischievous, but most of the time, totally harmless. Like his "brother", the kitsune, he has the ability to disguise himself and change shape whenever he wants, a tool that comes in handy to deceive humans and get food.
Today we will share with you all about this Japanese myth:
- The History and Origins of the Tanuki
- The meanings of the tanuki in Japan
- The unique features & tales surrounding this story
The Story of the Tanuki
The first major appearance of this mythological animal in literary texts is in a chapter about Empress Souiko in the Nara period, during the years 593 and 628. It is mentioned that there is a Tanuki in the nation of Mutsu, who sang and transformed into a human.
As they appeared, Tanuki acquired various names, and became an integral part of Japanese culture and stories. It should be noted that this Japanese mythological being was converted into a deity long ago, considering them to be the masters of nature, and until the advent of Buddhism, they and other gods and goddesses lost their deity status.
As only their image of creatures with supernatural powers remained, they started to be considered as yokai (demons). At the same time, compared to the kitsune (fox) which can change its form seven times, the tanuki has eight times, meaning that the latter is superior to the former. While the fox disguises itself to try and get its way, the tanuki disguises itself to deceive and make people look foolish.
What does the Tanuki look like?
It can be seen in many paintings and statues as a kind of raccoon. It is native to China. He is brown in color. His statues are made standing up, so his appearance of good-natured and cheerful, allows him to use and deceive people. He wears a straw hat and always has a bottle of sake in his hands. He likes to eat a lot and drink a lot of sake while scratching his stomach.
But its main characteristic is that its testicles are huge. It is said that the size of the tanuki's scrotum is a symbol of wealth and luck. They have the ability to stretch their scrotum for many purposes: to use it as a drum, as a blanket or hut to protect themselves from the cold, as a cape for sliding. But also as it is possible to see in the film Pompoko by Ghibli, as a weapon to defend themselves from aggressions, as a futon or seat, as a boat to move along rivers or even as a target to practice archery.
It is considered very charismatic in appearance, it likes to be always in the presence of children who come to talk to it. Its fur is like a panda's, soft and tender. During the Edo period (also known as the Tokugawa period, when the history of Japan was divided into two parts), it became very popular.
They can adopt human forms, but their specialty is inanimate objects. The resemblance is so close that it is almost impossible to distinguish them, unless you are lucky enough to burn or prick the object by mistake, with the subsequent reaction and transformation of the animal.
What are the symbols and meanings of the Tanuki?
The mysterious raccoon hides multiple symbols and meanings for the Japanese. Starting with the top, the straw hat, which symbolizes protection against trouble or bad weather. The big eyes symbolize the perfect vision to anticipate everything and make the right decisions. A long tail is strength and stability to acquire success.
Huge testicles symbolize economic success and fortune in any business. A potbelly means bold decisions and patience. The friendly smile represents good customer service. All of these representations are used by people who believe in the virtues and powers of the tanuki, who with great faith ask it for favors in order to obtain prosperity.
The most famous tales and stories about tanuki
The Tanuki has existed for more than 1000 years in the Japanese culture, there are surely thousands of stories, tales and novels surrounding this mischievous being, and it is understandable why it has inspired stories throughout the past centuries. This small colored animal has a lot of creativity that comes that often allows them to create troubles in the population, like this story that we are going to tell you.
The house in the middle of the night
The story goes that villagers who are lost in the night are tricked into believing this mystical animal, creating the illusion of a beautiful house, where at the door there is a very exuberant woman who invites them to stay in the house and spend the night. Many naive people agree to spend the night in the house, but when they wake up in the morning, they find that the tanuki has stolen everything from them, leaving them unconscious and naked, with no possessions.
The demon spirit of the Tanuki
One story tells of a man who captured a tanuki that was causing trouble in his fields, and tied it to a tree to kill and cook later. While waiting for him to fall asleep, the tanuki began to cry and begged the man's wife to set him free, in exchange for which he promised to help her for the rest of her life. She, believing what the tanuki said, let them go, and the tanuki, thinking they were free, killed her.
Later, the tanuki cooked the woman and transformed into her, then served her as soup to the husband when he returned from the village. When he finished eating, the tanuki returned to their original form and the lie was discovered, laughing as they escaped from their magic trick.
The history of the Teapot Tanuki
In other stories, it is said that they had the ability to transform into Tsukumogami, a demon from Japanese mythology, which has the quality of becoming, when it reaches one hundred years old, an object. The fact is that in the story, a man had the ability to capture a Tanuki, setting a trap for it, but the man observing the animal felt compassion, and decided to release it.
During the night, the creature appeared to the man in his house, and in order to thank him for releasing it, the tanuki transformed itself into a teapot and told the man to sell it to earn some money, which he did, the man sold it to a monk as a teapot. When the monk arrived at his house, he heated some water in the teapot, and when the water was boiling, the monk left the room. The tanuki then took off its legs and hands, running quickly to the house of the man who had freed it.
Upon arriving at his friend's house, they put on a show where the man would charge people to watch a teapot juggle, and the idea worked, so much so that the two of them not only became close friends, but made a lot of money.
The jokes of the Tanuki
The teasing side of a tanuki is much nicer than its demonic side. This happens, for example, when it turns forest leaves and stones into money and bills. Passersby who look at the money try to take it, but once in their hands are surprised to find that it's nothing more or less than leaves and stones.
Tanuki in the 21st century
Modernism has not escaped the tanuki, from stories for children or adults to video games, there is a lot of representation of this curious mythological animal. Today, Japanese people use "tanuki" as an expression to name people who fall asleep in the subway or in a bus. If you come to Tokyo for your next vacation, you will see it in countless temples and Japanese restaurants, but now you already know what they are for.
Tanuki and Japanese pop-culture
If you want to see the adventures of tanuki, there is the cinema, with Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, or "PomPoko" in the West. This animated film released in France in 2005 by the most famous Japanese studio in the field, Studio Ghibli, was a great success with 2.63 billion yen. You will see the tanuki, colorful, fighting for their natural environment destroyed by human expansion and the explosion of the Japanese population.
Video games have not escaped this urge to feature the creature either, where many companies such as Konami and Nintendo have used it in some games, especially as a protagonist, and in other roles such as a money tycoon. In the video game Super Mario 3, Mario disguises himself as a tanuki and strikes his enemies with his tail.
The representations of this myth in manga and anime
In the manga and anime Naruto, we can also see the tanuki, the demon that has a tail named Shukaku and whose carrier is Gaara. In the Dragon Ball GT series, the main character, Goku, is opposed to Suguru, who performs typical tanuki actions.
In the world-famous manga, One Piece, Chopper, because of his ability to transform, is often mistaken for a tanuki. In Shaman King, one of the spirits that accompany young Tamao is a tanuki.
There is an infinite amount of merchandise based on the Tanuki character that can be obtained in different sizes and shapes through a multitude of products. Whether it's in plush, ceramic, glass, wood, and even painted in beautiful frames, that's why it has become a very important figurine in shopping malls and markets all over Japan.
Thank you for reading our article, Eternal Japan, the reference of Japanese culture, pop-culture of the capital of the land of the rising sun and streetwear of the streets of Harajuku. If like the Tanuki sculptures in front of temples and restaurants in Japan, you want to change the atmosphere of your house or apartment, we offer you a whole catalog of decorative products directly from your favorite country.
Now that you know more about tanuki, what did you think of this Japanese animal? What is your favorite feature? If you liked it, share this article on your social networks and if you have more information about this mischievous mythological being, tell us. Japanese mythology is a fantastic world that you can continue to see with us through our blog. See you soon!