The Japanese Tanuki: An Animal With Supernatural Powers And Abilities

Japanese culture is full of tradition and folklore that has been passed down through generations. Some of this includes customs that are followed every day or special traditions that are practiced during holidays or matsuri (festivals). However, there is also some folklore that is rooted in the supernatural that is just as fascinating. 

One of the mythical creatures within Japanese culture is the Tanuki.

The Tanuki is also known as the Japanese raccoon dog. This mythical creature in Japanese culture is also a type of yokai called a Henge, which is more widely known to have the ability to be a shapeshifter. The Takuni is said to possess magical powers that are commonly used to take advantage of humans. 

The tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dog, is a canid species that is only found in Asia

It’s interesting to note that the Takuni is a real animal that can be found in Japan. Despite them being real, it hasn’t stopped the interesting stories about their supernatural abilities from surviving for a very long time. 

When Did The Legend Of Tanuki Start?

The stories about Tanuki go back centuries. There is a book that was written back in the year 720 called The Chronicles Of Japan or Nihon Shoki that features information about Tanuki. 

Chronicles Of Japan Via Wikipedia

In this book, the Tanuki are described as shapeshifters that like to turn into humans and play pranks on them. It also makes mention of their enjoyment of possessing people. 

Tanuki Statue In A Japanese Garden

There is also a story about a monk who saved a Tanuki who was trapped, and the Tanuki transforms into a teapot that the monk sold as a reward for his act of kindness.

However, the Tanuki becomes unhappy with its hot new environment and decides to transform back and find the monk again. The monk and the Tanuki then become friends and make money performing tricks together. 

There is also an amusing story about a Tanuki who transformed into a human in order to enjoy services at a Nagasaki brothel.

Tanuki Statue Dressed As A Monk

The Tanuki paid for services using leaves that they turned into money, which transformed back into leaves after he was discovered and removed from the brothel. 

What Does Tanuki Do?

The Tanuki can shapeshift between being a raccoon dog and a human. It is said they change into humans in order to play tricks on other humans. The tricks tend to be silly and without much purpose. They seem to enjoy playing tricks for the thrill of it. 

One of the more interesting features of the Tanuki may seem crude but is actually an important part of its attributes.

It is said that they have large testicles that help them shapeshift, and they apparently use them as weapons or change them into something useful for them as needed. 

Tanuki statues in the Awashima Jinja temple, Wakayama, Japan

There are some very peculiar illustrations and pieces of art that have been passed down throughout the history of Tanuki using their testicles for a variety of different reasons. 

Tanuki is also known for enjoying various establishments, such as bars or restaurants, disguised as humans and using leaves they turn into money to pay for their food and drink.

On the other hand, Tanuki has also been regarded as a sort of good luck charm for businesses looking to make more money. 

In many depictions of the Tanuki, they are seen holding a bottle of sake and a promissory note, both of which together symbolize fortune and trust.

Tanuki Statue Seen Here Wearing A Wide Brimmed Hat

Their eyes are depicted as being quite large, to symbolize them being curious and observant creatures. It is also said that they wear large, wide-brimmed hats to protect them from the elements as well as misfortune and bad luck. 

What Does Tanuki Look Like?

The description of Tanuki is often a small dog that looks like a raccoon, which is pretty apt. They are small, fluffy, and chubby creatures that have facial features similar to a raccoon. 

Face Of The Tanuki Shares A Similar Appearance To The Common Canine

Are Tanukis Real?

The Tanuki is an actual animal that lives in Japan. They can only be found in South Asia, which leads to part of their curious history as being a mythical creature. The Tanuki are often mistaken for raccoons because of their similarities. 

They can be found in some Japanese zoos, but also thrive in the wild. They are not afraid of coming in close contact with humans, and much like raccoons, they enjoy foraging through garbage at night in the more rural areas of Japan searching for food.

Stone sculpture depicting a Japanese Tanuki raccoon-dog at Tamonji Temple of Sumida ward

Interesting Facts About The Real Tanuki

Even though Tanuki resemble raccoons, especially in their facial features, they are not related to raccoons. They are actually related to dogs and wolves.

Despite being related to dogs, they can actually climb trees, which dogs cannot do. They tend to live in woodlands and are also able to swim. 

Tanuki has very thick, long fur that adds to their rotund appearance. They tend to have darker fur around their eyes, which is part of what leads them to be commonly mistaken for raccoons. 

Raccoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) in Japan

Unfortunately, the Tanuki has been subjected to cruelty over the years. They are often captured and bred for the fur trade and were also introduced to Russia in order to trap them for trade.

When they expanded into Europe, they were hunted as they were believed to be an invasive species. 

The Tanuki also enjoy coupling and cuddling with their mates, and they also hibernate in the winter, usually with their families. They live as part of a family unit, and they are said to be very social creatures. Tanuki also tends to be a nocturnal animal. 

Raccoon dog (tanuki)

An interesting tidbit is how they defend themselves against potential threats. As the mythical creature is known to play with its belly, a real Tanuki will show its belly in its defensive stance.

They also have very high-pitched growls similar to cats, despite them being in the canine family. 

Are Mythical Tanukis Bad Or Evil?

When the Tanuki legend started, they were connected to hauntings and prankish behavior. The Tanuki gained the moniker of bakedanuki (transformational) because of their supernatural and paranormal capabilities. 

As time progressed, however, the Tanuki was known for transforming from their human form to their raccoon dog form to scare hunters and travelers.

It is said that they would bang on their stomachs as if they were pretending to play the drums on their abdomen. This is where their silliness starts to weave itself into stories about them. 

Tanuki is now often associated with merriment and indulgence in fun behaviors such as drinking and partying. While sometimes they would scare people, oftentimes, it is said that they would try to convince travelers to partake in some fun activity. 

Even though the Tanuki enjoyed playing pranks on people, it’s said that these pranks often weren’t very harmful or dangerous. This is because the Tanuki are regarded as being somewhat aloof and not very clever. 

Tanuki Statues

Statues of the Tanuki are common for Japanese households to possess and display. This is because even though they are tricksters, they are pretty adorable.

It seems that because the Tanuki is a funny trickster rather than one with evil intentions, Japanese people aren’t as afraid of the Tanuki as they are of other mythical creatures. 

Tanuki Statue Outside Of A Local Izakaya Holing A Sake Bottle

Because of their association with fun and frivolity, some Japanese bars and restaurants will also place statues of the Tanuki outside of their establishments.

This invites patrons in to have a lively and entertaining evening. This is also supposed to deter other Tanuki from coming in and taking food and drink with their esteemed fake money. 

The Tanuki In Western Culture

The Tanuki is not as well known in Western culture, but it has made appearances in modern media. For example, in some Super Mario games, Mario has the option to wear a Tanuki suit.

It has most likely been mistaken for a raccoon, but it is actually the Tanuki. This suit allows Mario to fly and shapeshift, as well as use his tail as a weapon. 

Tanuki sculpture at Kameoka Torokko Station in Kyoto

Tanuki also appears in another very popular video game; Animal Crossing. Tom Nook, one of the most popular characters, is a Tanuki.

The two employees that work for him are also Tanuki. Interestingly, the furniture they sell can shapeshift, much as the mythical Tanuki can. 

Cute Tanuki shop at a shopping street Sapporo Hokkaido

Pom Poko Movie Trailer

There is also a foreign film that centers around Tanuki called Pom Poko. However, it’s said that in the English interpretation, the Tanuki is not identified as such.

It seems that they were mistaken as badgers through poor translation. A Tanuki is also present in the Japanese version of the popular film Zootopia

Zootopia By Disney Trailer

Both the Tanuki from Japanese folklore and the real Tanuki are curiously fascinating creatures. It seems the trickery they have been known for in legends has been embraced as something innocent and humorous.

While they don’t get as much respect in the wild as they do in folklore, they are still regarded as being good luck and sometimes bringing good fortune. 

One Version Of The Tanuki Myth

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.