Yuko Shimizu, “The Tanuki”
Japan’s youkai are a veritable pantheon of assorted oddities and wondrous creatures, which is a commonality in mythologies from all around the globe. As such, it comes to reason that the intermingling of other cultures with Japan – particularly Western cultures – would allow them to become acquainted with at least some of the youkai present in Japanese myths and legends. To some extent this has indeed happened, as especially popular youkai like kitsune (fox spirits) and yurei (human ghosts) have been able to somewhat cross over into foreign media. But obviously, they are only two examples from an entire mythology’s worth of entities, and even with the foreign attention that their fame has won them, not all famous youkai have been so lucky. One of the foremost examples of just how difficult it can be for a youkai to really “make it” non-domestically is a creature that has basis both in myth and in reality, yet most people outside of Asia likely haven’t heard of at all: the tanuki. An uncommon concept to foreigners but a household name in native Japan, tanuki are one of the most well-known examples of youkai in Asian folklore that have unfortunately gotten the short end of the stick in terms of depictions of popular youkai worldwide. This is largely due to dissonance in cultural translation or the sheer absence of tanuki in the eye of Western culture, period, but despite their obscurity, the tanuki have a enduring legacy that has made them iconic in their native Japan. What are they, and how do they figure into Japan’s overall mythos of supernatural beings? Let’s have a look.
General Characteristics & Common Depictions
Physically, tanuki are dog-like creatures with thick fur of different shades of brown, and bushy tails. As seemingly normal animals, they walk on four legs by default, but as youkai they can become bipedal at will. In older depictions they were shown as being small or compact in comparison to other animals such as foxes, but this depiction has since escalated to the point where modern media typically portrays them as being downright potbellied (Smith, 251). The portrayal of tanuki as fat creatures has become symbolic over time, signifying calmness and a bold personality, but it also has practical uses in some myths where tanuki will drum on their rotund bellies for fun, or to pique the interest of curious passersby. This is is a common enough trope in stories about tanuki that the Japanese even gave it it’s own name, hara-tsuzumi, which translates literally to “belly hand drum” (Weinstock, 527).
The most prominent part of the tanuki, which can seem incredibly off-putting to those unfamiliar with the creature, is its cartoonishly large scrotum. Even with the advent of more stern censorship policies, it’s still quite difficult to hear about the tanuki without it being mentioned that the creature has very large testicles, which it can manipulate at will and use like a makeshift tool (Ashkenazi, 119). While it seems too outlandish to be based on anything in real life, this aspect of the tanuki myth actually does have basis in the Japanese language, being derived from a Japanese play-on-words that was coined by feudal metalworkers. At the time, it was common practice to use the skin of tanuki in the process of smelting gold nuggets, which are called kintama in Japanese. This word can also mean “testicles” in Japanese, which was acknowledged so often that the tanuki became heavily associated with the body part in myth. Fittingly, this has also earned the tanuki some status as a symbol of fertility & prosperity, which is why it’s not uncommon to see statues of them adorning stores and restaurants in modern day Japan (Foster, 187).
In terms of personality, tanuki are quintessential in their characterization as trickster archetypes (Foster, 186). Mischief is an extremely common raison d’etre for youkai in legend, with countless tales concerning people being subjected to their fun-fueled torment, but few are reputed as being as prone to it – or adept at it – as the tanuki. A masterful shapeshifter, tanuki are able to transform both themselves and other things into any shape or form, in particular changing the shape and size of their oversized testicles to perform any number of tasks. They often make use of this transformative ability in folklore to either help or hinder people, depending on their portrayal. It’s somewhat difficult to apply a certain morality to tanuki in general, as tales throughout history have varied their exact alignment broadly between being kind & helpful, ambivalent & bumbling, or explicitly malicious (Weinstock, 528). Two famous Japanese stories that present tanuki with very different temperaments are Kachi-Kachi Yama and Bunbuku Chagama. The former story depicts the tanuki as an malevolent beast that murders an innocent woman and tricks her husband into eating her remains before being slain for its evil, while the latter depicts it as a benevolent acquaintance to an impoverished monk who brings him fame and fortune in exchange for a home (Foster, 187). However, modern Asian culture generally chooses them to represent a more light-hearted and fun-loving prankster than smiliar youkai like the kitsune, which has a much more cunning and dangerous reputation in folklore and contemporary media. In fact, tanuki and kitsune have been compared so heavily that they have come to represent a sort of duality in the popular trickster archetype of Japan. They are often shown together in artwork, and their collective legacy has caused them to even lend their names to a Japanse word, kori, which can refer to a sly or deceptive person and is simply a compound of the kanji for tanuki and kitsune.
Origins & Evolution of the Myth
Just as the mythical kitsune is analogous to real-life foxes, the mythical tanuki is a direct analogue to the real life animal of the same name, which is typically referred to as a “raccoon dog” in other parts of the world due to its passing resemblance to a raccoon. This comparison is sometimes taken so far that tanuki are expressly referred to simply as “raccoons” in the West, even though this is inaccurate. Contrary to that moniker, tanuki are not closely related to raccoons at all. They are instead canids with close evolutionary relations to some species of fox, such as the bat-eared fox, which is oddly appropriate considering how tanuki and kitsune are often depicted together in folklore. The first documentation of the tanuki was recorded in the Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. One of the oldest known texts on Japan’s history, the Nihon Shoki describes the tanuki changing into humans and making merry, showing that the representation of tanuki as magical beings dates back almost two millennia (Weinstock, 527).
Tanuki began appearing in short stories in the Heian (794-1185 CE) and Kamakura (1185-1333 CE) periods of historical Japan. The Uji Shuui Monogatari, a well-known collection of such short stories, contains a specific tale in which a Buddhist hermit is visited by the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, which turns out to be an illusion created by a tanuki (Weinstock, 527). Stories like Bunbuku Chagama and Kachi-Kachi Yama, where they where starting to be depicted in specific character roles, became prominent later on during the Edo period (1603-1868 CE). By the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE), they had obtained a similar spot in Japanese culture as the ghosts or aliens have in America, being a catch-all fantastical explanation for any odd phenomenon. An incident in 1889 involving an incident with Japanese steam trains was attributed to tanuki, wherein the driver of one train reported seeing another train on the same track set to collide with his own, but this second train suddenly vanished at the moment of impact. Two tanuki were found to have been run over by the driver’s train during the event, which resulted in many attributing the ordeal to the creatures trying to frighten the train driver with their magic (Foster, 190).
Modern Interpretations & Exposure to Other Cultures
Today, tanuki are still very present in Asian culture. As previously stated, Japan has adapted them as popular symbols of various positive character traits, and they crop up frequently in many facets of contemporary media such as advertising and fiction. They remain the subject of some superstitions and religious practices in different parts of Japan, with shrines dedicated to them still existing even in the capital of Tokyo. In effect, they have evolved from simple mythological beasts into icons of a sort.
However, this generous cultural attention doesn’t extend far beyond Asia, wherein tanuki are comparatively obscure. While they have been introduced in limited numbers to specific parts of Europe (Foster, 186), tanuki remain distinctly absent in most of western nature, which has been a large contribution to the limited exposure of Western media to the mythical creatures or the real ones. In light of this, pop culture in the past few decades has been able to better establish and improve the tanuki’s image in the Western world, primarily through their modern depictions in animation and video games. Japanese animation or anime, as well as products made by Japanese gaming companies (i.e. Nintendo), have exploded in popularity in the West, making it inevitable that a creature so prominent in Japan’s folklore would make it into those mediums, and would therefore be introduced to other cultures where such things gained lots of attention.
Some examples of Tanuki appearing in
- The Mario Bros. franchise created by Nintendo, a franchise so popular the world over that it’s synonymous with video games in general to many, contains some homages to tanuki folklore. Tanuki appear in some entries of the series as supporting characters, and Mario himself has among his many abilities a form known as the “Tanooki Suit”. With it, Mario can levitate and transform into a Buddhist statue, both of which are skills which are commonplace in the repertoire of mythical tanuki. This homage is taken even further in that Mario’s brother Luigi instead has the ability to adopt the form of a kitsune, referencing the closeness of the two youkai in culture.
- Nintendo has made references to the tanuki in some of its other popular game franchises, as well. The Pokemon series has the Pokemon species Zigzagoon and Sentret, which are designed to resemble different depictions of the tanuki. Animal Crossing is a series of games that all feature the character Tom Nook, who is presented as a raccoon in English translations but is obviously a tanuki regardless, as his name and appearance suggest. While not explicitly magical, Tom Nook still shares some of the tanuki’s reputation as a trickster by forcing the player into massive debt, and also has his own kitsune counterpart named Crazy Redd.
- Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto is an anime that has become one of the most popular examples of the medium since its inception, garnering a huge fan base in the West. In it, one particular antagonist is the chaotic Shukaku, a giant demonic entity made of sand in the form of a tanuki, which weaponizes the tanuki’s hara-tsuzumi as a method of firing deadly air bullets.
- The Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, most famous for films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke which have garnered praise in many foreign audiences, released the film Pom Poko in 1994, which directly addresses the relationship between tanuki (and to a lesser extent, kitsune) and modern Japanese culture. In it, a clan of tanuki youkai must find a way to stop their natural habitat from getting demolished to build a golf course, and in the process they invoke a huge array of tropes from different tanuki myths, as well as many other Japanese folktales. The film depicts modern society as having lost touch with myths and legends as a legitimate aspect of itself, in favor of presenting it as merely a part of popular culture, which is a blatant reference to the modernization of many myths into cultural icons.
- Tom Robbins’s novel Villa Incognito is an example of the tanuki actually appearing in a standalone Western work. The novel features a tanuki as an important character in its backstory and makes many references to the multiple uses for it’s scrotum.
Even with all this background, it’s still impossible to say with absolute certainty why the tanuki remains comparatively more obscure in world pop culture than some other youkai. Once again, the fact that tanuki don’t exist in most western habitats and thus haven’t been seen by most people in the West likely has something to do with it. It may also have to do with censorship, as the tanuki’s deep-seeded link to genitalia is treated with far more tolerance in Japan than it likely would be in other places. The lack of a centuries-long cultural backbone in the form of old legends doesn’t help, either, though as we’ve seen here, none of this truly stops the tanuki from being introduced to the world as it does slow the process considerably. Regardless of whether the tanuki ever truly catches on in other places or not, it’s evident that Asia has every intention of keeping its legacy preserved in some way or another. In addition, the mere existence of this article (written by an American college student) shows that, in an age of information, the tanuki and potentially all youkai can be introduced to people all around the world, if they so choose to become informed on such things. In short, the tanuki may be able to vanish into thin air, but it’s definitely not going anywhere any time soon.
Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.
Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Youkai. University of California Press, 2015. Print.
Yuko Shimizu, The Tanuki. Discovery Channel Magazine (Singapore): http://yukoart.com/work/discovery-channel-yokai-feature/?work_subject=asian-theme#4
Smith, Evans Lansing and Nathan Robert Brown. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Mythology. Penguin, 2008. Print.
Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko). Directed by Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli, 1994.
Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrews. The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014. Print.
“Yanagimori Shrine: Going balls out in Akihabara.” Yoda, Hiroko. CNN Travel. Cable News Network, 21 April, 2010, http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/play/unseen-tokyo-akihabaras-yanagimori-shrine-606404/.