Tanuki – Japan’s shape-shifting raccoon dogs

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.

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