In Search of Tanuki

Among the pantheon of Japan’s so-called yokai, there are scary monsters, funny monsters and downright incomprehensible monsters. Sometimes they look kind of familiar, such as the frog-like Kappa. Others are obake so can shape-shift, meaning you never really know what they look like! Perhaps the two that most of all could be described as “cheeky” or mysterious are the cunning trickster kitsune, or the fox spirit, and the affable tanuki, the raccoon dog.

Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus. There’s nothing supernatural about the genus for the actual raccoon dog (not to be confused with badgers and raccoons). But the tanuki of folklore is a rather more difficult to define. For a start, like the fox, it changes shape, even more so than the kitsune if the saying “the fox has seven disguises, the tanuki has eight” is to be believed. But the tanuki is on the whole a less harmful character. In fact, in the folktale Bunbuku Chagama a tanuki famously changes into a teapot to help someone. You can go to the temple in the story at Morinjin in Gunma prefecture, where you will be greeted by hundreds of tanuki statues.

tanuki raccoon dog

There are endless stories of encounters and adventures with shape-shifting tanuki in the countryside. Perhaps one will suffice for now. A young man once spent the night with a girl and then left early the next morning to go to work. He felt tired on the way and so took a nap at the base of a tree. Soon a huge man with only one eye appeared, sitting on a big rock by the tree.

“Was last night good?” the Cyclops asked. “Yes, it was.” Then the stranger asked, “What do you think of mine?” The young man looked down and saw the mysterious character had his kimono open, exposing his enormous testicles. “Wow, they’re big,” complimented the young man, before immediately taking out his sword and cutting the balls. Suddenly the man screamed and transformed into a raccoon dog, dying in agony.

So there you go: That’s what you should do if you ever encounter a shape-shifting tanuki. But how likely is it to come across a tanuki without heading deep into the forests of Japan? We went in search of tanuki today in Tokyo and found some surprising results.

First up, though, is no surprise. Everyone knows where to find a tanuki very easily. Tanuki statues are often placed in front of izakaya, shops and other eateries as a sign of good luck. The most common tanuki statues are made by Shigarakiyaki, an old pottery center in Shiga, and they are responsible for that cheerful, goofy image we have of the tanuki, though in fact this is a twentieth century development.

tanuki ceramic statues

tanuki ponta yurakucho

Ponta-kun (and his chums) has been in Yurakucho Station for twenty-five years as a kind of altar of talismans.

tanuki ponta card lawson

Plus convenience store chain Lawson uses a tanuki, also called Ponta, for its members’ card.

From sculpture to two-dimensional art now. Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s tanuki ukiyoe woodblock prints (1842-1844) are perhaps the most famous example of artworks featuring the raccoon dog, though he looks pretty different to the Shigarakiyaki ware. In the prints, tanuki are depicted fishing, sheltering from the rain or telling other tanuki’s fortunes.

And their “tool” in all these daily activities? Well, there’s no easy way to say this. They use their scrotum. It can be a net, an umbrella, a cloak when you’re cold, a weapon to beat your enemies, a drum, or even a boat. That’s one versatile ball sack.

tanuki kuniyoshi utagawa tanuki kuniyoshi utagawa

There is some confusion here whether it’s the testicles themselves that are huge or the scrotum, which may be as large as several meters if the legends are to be believed. The famous schoolyard song weighs in on the testicular side of the fence: Tan-tan-tanuki no kintama wa, kaze mo nai no ni, bu-ra bura! (“The tanuki’s balls! There isn’t any wind but they still go swing, swing, swing!”). Well, we’ll leave it up to the experts to decide the exact anatomy.

Another way to see tanuki in Tokyo, balls and all, is by going to a DVD store and getting your hands on the Studio Ghibli anime ‘Pom Poko‘, which features the exploits of west Tokyo raccoon dogs and several famous tanuki from Shikoku, a tanuki heartland. In the film the tanuki unite to combat urban development that is cutting into their environment. So if you are planning any construction projects in Japan, you have been warned!

Not far from Tama, the setting for ‘Pom Poko’, is the suburban city of Hachioji, whose official mascot is a tanuki, Takibou. The tale has it that Hachioji was home to a castle which was destroyed in the Warring States period, and then shape-shifting tanuki had free reign of the area. One of them, Takibou, became a gentle disciple of a powerful monk who defeated him and put an end to his mischievous magical ways.

Takibou is actually one of the most popular regional mascots (yuru-kyara) in Japan, so beloved that he even released his own perfume product in 2012.

tanuki takibou hachioji

From west Tokyo to shitamachi. In Asakusa you can find Tanuki-dori, or Raccoon Dog Street, so named because of all the tanuki who used to live around Asakusa up till the Meiji period. Now there are tanuki statues on the small shopping street said to bring good luck to pilgrims.

We also recently heard about what can only be described as an exercise in tanuki cosplay anthropology. Making Friends is a kind of public prank performed by Jared Braiterman and Chris Berthelsen that sets out to welcome tanuki back to Tokyo. “We probe in real-time whether Tokyo residents are ready to take a chance on a character this wild, historical, and silly,” they tell us. “We engage in random acts of sharing in public, and document unsuspecting passers-by’s reaction, both positive and negative.”

tanuki making friends

If you had a tanuki next to you on the train, how would you respond? Would you want that sack near you? “The sack is at once a limitless resource and clearly inappropriate. We believe the sack brings hope and possibilities. We are also aware that the sack invites, repels, and intrigues passers-by and strangers.” Jared and Chris’ overall tanuki campaign has the outlandish name of SCROTUM (Studio for Creative Revitalization of Tanuki Urban Manifestations), a series of city pranks with tanuki.

So where has tanuki been so far? “Tanuki has had many interactions with Tokyo strangers. Sites include the streets of Azabu-juban, the Netherlands Embassy pool, a Santanuki Christmas party, a suburban elementary school, a foot-bath by the Edo-era Tamagawa Josui canal, and the Musashino Art University. Tanuki even campaigned for the 2012 Japanese election on an anti-nuke and pro-love platform. We believe tanuki may have received zero votes.”

A tanuki prime minister. Now that’s something we’d like to see. After a recent workshop at Shibaura House in Tamachi, Jared and Chris are taking their project to the EPIC conference in London in September.

tanuki scrotum shibuya

According to the sensibly named TokyoTanuki.jp, there are around 1,000 raccoon dogs in the city at present (i.e. not tanuki the yokai, thank goodness!) and the website records hundreds of sightings of the creatures scuttling along the asphalt. We asked Chris and Jared if they’d ever seen real life raccoon dogs in Tokyo.

“Yes,” says Jared. “Late at night, on my bike ride back from a sento, I saw a tanuki crossing Itsukaichikaido street near Zenpukuji river. This was an auspicious site because Itsukaichikaido is an Edo street still used today as a major artery, from Koenji to Kichijoji and beyond. And the river is one of the better preserved in Tokyo.”

Chris had a different encounter. “During my time at Hitotsubashi University in the western Tokyo suburbs I was able to witness, but not interact with, the resident tanuki family of the university that lived near the archery club.”

Archery-loving tanuki? Like we said, you have been warned!