Tanuki – Japan’s shape-shifting raccoon dogs

Posted in Japan on 21 April, 2013 (11:17)

Tanuki - Japan's shapeshifting raccoon dogs
While walking the streets of any Japanese city, you’ll likely see a statue similar to the one above outside homes and businesses, but who is the little fella?

He’s a Tanuki(Japanese raccoon dog) – he’s said to bring good fortune. An animal steeped in folklore for hundreds of years here in Japan, they’re said to be capable of various miraculous feats including shape-shifting and possessing people, although unlike foxes who use their abilities maliciously, tanuki use theirs for fun – and take great pleasure in making humans look foolish.

If you’ll direct your attention away from his cute face for a moment, you’ll notice a gigantic pair of balls between his feet – probably the most memorable of the eight tanuki traits. All eight are:

  • A hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather
  • Big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions
  • A sake bottle that represents virtue
  • A big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved
  • An over-sized scrotum that symbolises financial luck
  • A promissory note that represents trust or confidence
  • A big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness
  • A friendly smile.

Tanuki have made their way into popular culture over the years, most notably in Studio Ghibli’s “Pom Poko” and Super Mario Bros 3(and future games) as a power up suit for Mario, it’s no surprise Nintendo omitted the giant balls though.

Pom Poko is definitely worth a watch, it’s full of the charm you’d expect from a Ghibli movie as well as a really thought-provoking story about the effect of humans destroying the natural habitats of wild animals.

Mario’s “Tanooki suit” came under fire from PETA a few years ago, who produced a flash game called “Mario kills Tanooki” – they considered the suit in game to be Mario condoning wearing fur. Pretty cynical look at the game and a tenuous link at best.

Next time, if you’re out and about and someone is making you feel particularly foolish or stupid, it’s probably a Tanuki messing with you.

Thanks for reading! Here are some of my other posts you might like

Stormtrooper Caramelldansen!
Janglish Signs and Products
An unexpected letter from Japan
Hyper Japan Spring 2012 event
The Secret Submarine Bar
Tuesday Time-lapse: Tsuruhashi

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