Mischeivious "Racoon Dogs"

Reference Pages Index -- Oniko Goes To Japan Main Page

A stuffed tanuki on display in a
hotel in Yamagata prefecture.
Tanuki are easily as well known as foxes as being an animal credited with supernatural powers for transformation and illusion, but where the tricks that foxes play on humans are often tinged with cruelty, tanuki tricks are more often described as being just good-natured tomfoolery. Tanuki are one of the 'monsters' that commonly appears in Japanese TV, movies, and print media, often as a comedy relief sort of character.
But what exactly is a tanuki? This question plagued me for a long time, since even dictionaries couldn't decide if the word should be translated as "racoon" or "badger" or even "racoon dog"... a sore point with most people I've discussed this with. As it turns out, none of these translations are exactly correct simply because the tanuki is a breed of mammal that lives only in Japan, China, and Korea; so the proper translation for 'tanuki' would simply be 'tanuki', eh? The animal is masked like a racoon, but big and stocky like a badger, and is known to fake being dead when surprised... because of this last fact, the idiom "tanuki neiri" [literally "fall into a tanuki's sleep"] means to feign sleep.
Tales tell of tanuki being able to disguise themselves as anyone or thing they want, usually to get a good laugh from fooling any person who happens along. A tale from the town of Takamori, in Yamaguchi prefecture, tells that after the railroad tracks were first laid in their were noises on the tracks at midnight as if a train were running, even though no train was scheduled. The noises stopped one day, however... when a bunch of dead tanuki were found in one of the tunnels. It was assumed that the tanuki had been pretending they were a train to fool people when, unfortunately for them, they ran into a real train. [This tale is from another website. If it's still up, you can visit it: Harapan Media Tech]
One version of the tanuki tea kettle story claims that the kettle is still on display at a temple called Morinji... but where is that?
An older and better known tale tells of a tanuki who, for a variety of reasons -- many versions of this story exist -- transformed into a ceremonial tea kettle for a monk. When the monk then placed the tanuki tea kettle on a fire to heat it up, it suddenly developed a tanuki head, tail, and legs, and then ran away... but for some mysterious reason -- perhaps as punishment for trying to trick a monk -- the tanuki was unable to change back to his former shape and was therefore stuck in the form of half-tanuki and half-tea kettle. Not to worry, though; the resourceful creature ended up working in a circus and becoming extremely famous [or so it is said].
Though often playful, tanuki are also often characterized as theives who use their tricks to steal a good meal from humans. A tale is told of how a samurai named Kadzutoyo and his retainer, while returning home in a rain from a fishing trip, met a pretty young lady who requested their protection as they walked to the next town. The retainer was much attracted to the young lady... Kadzutoyo, however, was not: in fact, he whip out his sword and cut off her head with barely a hesitation, horrifying his retainer. That night, Kadzutoyo's father, informed of the incident by the retainer, threatened to kill his samurai son himself to restore family honor. Kadzutoyo calmly persuaded him to wait one day, then go investigate the murder before making a decision. The next day Kadzutoyo's father and the retainer returned to the scene of the crime and found not the body of a young woman, but that of a beheaded tanuki. "But how did you know?" the father asked his son later. "Easy," came the answer... though standing in the rain, the young lady's clothing was not becoming wet, even during their talk; so Kadzutoyo assumed it was a forest trickster out to steal his fish, and killed it. The father was so impressed with this that he abdicated his position in favor of his clever son.
As you can see, there is no clear way to tell if a tanuki is tricking you other than to pay attention... luckily, tanuki are also one of the most harmless of supernatural beings you can encounter in Japan. Annoying, but harmless... unless you lose your lunch, eh?

Some more random notes regarding tanuki: