狸 tanuki

Last weekend we went for a long walk with the dogs, and we saw some 狸 tanuki.

Tanuki are a Japanese wild animal, and their English name is “raccoon dogs”. This particular family of tanuki live in a kofun, where they are safe from human interference.

Back in the 1950s, this kofun was going to be demolished and turned into housing. You can see in the pictures the remains of a concrete bridge that was put in place to allow access for construction vehicles. Some damage was done to the kofun, but the plans were reversed, the kofun reverted to its wild condition, and the bridge fell down. Good news for the tanuki.

Sometimes people feed them by throwing them food such as oranges, and they emerge from the forest onto the remains of the bridge.

Both our dogs were fascinated by the tanuki and stared at them intently for the whole time we were there.

So the tanuki is a real, live animal, but that’s not the full story. In effect there are two tanuki: the real animal and the tanuki of Japanese folklore.

There are lots of these tanuki statues, outside the front door of people’s homes, bars and shops. They depict a toothy, mischievous animal, standing upright and wearing a woven straw hat. He carries a walking stick, a bottle of sake and some promissory notes. He has big round eyes, a belly like a drum and enormous testicles. The statue is intended to encourage you to be free-spending like the tanuki, to come in and eat and drink, not to be mean with money.

The best known feature of the mythical tanuki is his enormous “moneybags”. In some statues his kinbukuro is so grotesquely oversized that he carries it slung over his shoulder like a sack. The symbolism is “increasing prosperity” or “increasing luck”. In the stories, he can extend it to cover an area of 8 tatami mats. In the film Ponpoko, we see the elder tanuki addressing a large number younger members of the tribe seated in front of him. He has made a mat big enough for all of them to sit on, but when he retracts it they all tumble over. In another memorable scene, a group of tanuki use their kinbukuro as parachutes. A children’s song says “tan-tan-tanuki, even when there isn’t any wind his balls are swinging”.

The tanuki, like the fox, is a shape-shifter. He can take on different forms, including human form. (Conversely, in some stories we see attackers gaining access to a castle while disguised as tanuki. Which raises some questions like: why would the castle guard allow a troupe of tanuki to come in? And how do you disguise yourself as a tanuki anyway?)

Anyway, the tanuki of folktales loves to play tricks on strangers. He can make leaves look like money and dung look like delicious food. He can make the sound of festival drums in the forest by drumming on his big round belly. He can fool ordinary people but he also likes to take on the form of monks and buddhas so as to confound learned people.

This “cute” little tanuki statue is holding an owl.The owl is one of tanuki’s friends. The story goes that the twelve zodiac animals had a poetry competition and tanuki wanted to take part, but wasn’t allowed because he wasn’t a zodiac animal. So he leads a group of other rejected animals: the owl, the crow, the fox and the weasel, to attack the twelve. In the end of the story, he leaves his family to become a monk.

Note on the word of the day:

The kanji for tanuki: 狸 has a “beast” radical (kemonohen) on the left-hand side. Many kanji characters for different kinds of animals have this radical, such as: 猫 neko—cat; 猪 inoshishi—boar; 狐 kitsune—fox; 狼 ookami—wolf; 猿 saru—monkey. In practice, however, names of animals are very often written in katakana or hiragana, and very few animal names are included in the list of kanji for everyday use.

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4 thoughts on “狸 tanuki

  1. Very cool. 🙂

    The Kofun are a new concept to me, and very interesting.

    The Tanuki seems similar to a more laid-back version of the Trickster, the Coyote of Amerind legend. The Coyote seems to have a sharper, somewhat malicious sting to many of his pranks, but he is also a creature of creation and benevolence. Ecologically, I believe they fill similar niches, as well – Though the Coyote may be rather more aggressive.

    1. I will have to read about the Trickster Coyote – there may be more in common than you think. The tanuki wasn’t always the benevolent, mischievous cuddly character of the modern statues. In earlier centuries he was as much to be feared as any other “yokai” demon creature.

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