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The Tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus), also known as Japanese Raccoon Dog (狸 or たぬき?) in Japanese, is a subspecies of the raccoon dog native to Japan.

Researchers have suggested that they be considered a separate species, N. viverrinus, or that raccoon dogs of Japan could be further divisible into separate subspecies as N. p. procyonoides (hondo-tanuki) and N. p. albus (ezo-tanuki), but both views are controversial.

As the tanuki, the animal has been significant in Japanese folklore since ancient times. The legendary tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absentminded. It is also a common theme in Japanese art, especially statuary.

"Tanuki" is often mistakenly translated into English as badger or raccoon (as used in the US version of the movie Pompoko, and outlined in Tom Robbins' book Villa Incognito), two unrelated types of animals with a superficially similar appearance. Traditionally, different areas of Japan had different names for raccoon dogs as animals, which would be used to denote different animals in other parts of the country, including badgers and wild cats; however the official word in the standard Tokyo dialect is now tanuki, a term that also carries the folkloric significance.


While tanuki are prominent in Japanese folklore and proverbs, they were not always clearly distinguished from other animals with a similar appearance. In local dialects, tanuki and mujina (, kyujitai: 貉) can refer to raccoon dogs or badgers. An animal known as tanuki in one region may be known as mujina in another region. In modern Tokyo standard dialect, tanuki refers to raccoon dogs and anaguma refers to badgers. Regional dishes known as tanuki-jiru ("tanuki soup") may actually contain either raccoon dog or badger, although the taste of the latter is often preferred.

Originally, the kanji for tanuki, (kyujitai: 貍) was used to refer to other mid-sized mammals, mostly wild cats. Since wild cats live only in limited regions of Japan (e.g. Iriomote, Okinawa), it is believed that the characters began to be used to mean 'raccoon dog' instead starting around the Japanese feudal era. This shift in meaning, along with the rarity of the raccoon dog outside Japan, may have contributed to confusion over the proper translation of "tanuki" into other languages.

In Japanese slang, tanuki gao ("raccoon dog face") can refer to a face that looks like that of the animal, or a person's facial expression of feigned ignorance.[1] By contrast, kitsune gao ("fox face") refers to people with narrow faces, close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones.

Taxonomic Disputes

There is some debate in the scientific community regarding speciation between the other subspecies of raccoon dog and the Japanese subspecies in that due to chromosomal, behavioral, and weight differences, the Japanese raccoon dog could be considered a separate species[2] (i.e. Nyctereutes viverrinus rather than N. procyonoides viverrinus). The Japanese raccoon dog has a relatively smaller stomach and shorter fur of lesser insulation value than mainland raccoon dogs.[3]

Genetic analysis has confirmed unique sequences of mtDNA, classifying the Japanese raccoon dog as a distinct isolation species, based on evidence of eight Robertsonian translocations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Canid Group's Canid Biology and Conservation Conference in September 2001 rejected the classification of the Japanese raccoon dog as a separate species, but its status is still disputed, based on its elastic genome.[4]

A not necessarily mutually exclusive position advanced by some researchers is that raccoon dogs of Japan could be further divisible into separate subspecies as N. p. procyonoides (hondo-tanuki) and N. p. albus (ezo-tanuki).

Conservation and exhibition

The International Union for Conservation of Nature places the raccoon dog at "least concern" status due to the animal's wide distribution and abundant population, including as an introduced species throughout northeastern Europe. In many European countries, it is legal to hunt raccoon dogs as it is considered a harmful and invasive species.[5]

This species is rarely exhibited in zoological parks. For example, only two zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association – Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia and the Red River Zoo in Fargo, North Dakota – currently exhibit this species in the United States. The Hangzhou Zoo in China and the River Safari also have Japanese raccoon dogs.

In folklore and Tradition

The tanuki has a long history in Japanese legend and folklore. Bake-danuki (化け狸) are a kind of tanuki yōkai (ghost) found in the classics and in the folklore and legends of various places in Japan.

Although the tanuki is a real, extant animal, the bake-danuki that appears in literature has always been depicted as a strange, even supernatural animal. The earliest appearance of the bake-danuki in literature, in the chapter about Empress Suiko in the Nihon Shoki written during the Nara period, there are such passages as "in two months of spring, there are tanuki in the country of Mutsu (春二月陸奥有狢),[6] they turn into humans and sing songs (化人以歌).[7] ".[8][9] Bake-danuki subsequently appear in such classics as the Nihon Ryōiki[8][10][11] and the Uji Shūi Monogatari.[8] In some regions of Japan, bake-danuki are reputed to have abilities similar to those attributed to kitsune (foxes): they can shapeshift into other things,[8][11] shapeshift people,[8][11] and possess human beings.[8][12]

There are many legends of tanuki in the Sado Islands of Niigata Prefecture and in Shikoku, and among them, like the Danzaburou-danuki of Sado, the Kinkyou-tanuki and Rokuemon-tanuki of Awa Province (Tokushima Prefecture), and the Yashima no Hage-tanuki of Kagawa Prefecture, the tanuki who possessed special abilities were given names, and even became the subject of rituals. Apart from these places, there are few cases where tanuki are treated with special regard.[13]

The character , pronounced lí in modern Mandarin, was originally a collective name for medium-sized mammals resembling cats in China, with the leopard cat as its nucleus. When this character was brought to Japan, there were no animals to which it could be suitably applied. Japanese intellectuals used the character to signify tanuki, stray cats, wild boars, Eurasian badgers, weasels, and Japanese giant flying squirrels.[10][11]

The tanuki of Japan from time immemorial were deified as governing all things in nature, but after the arrival of Buddhism, animals other than envoys of the gods (foxes, snakes, etc.) lost their divinity. Since all that remained was the image of possessing special powers, they were seen as evil or as yōkai, with tanuki being a representative type. Some also take the viewpoint that the image of the tanuki has overlapped with that of the mysterious and fearful of China (leopard cat).[11] However, since the tanuki of Japan do not have the fearsome image that the leopard-cats of China do, unlike in China their image took the form of a more humorous kind of monster,[11] and even in folktales like Kachi-kachi Yama, and Bunbuku Chagama, they often played the part of foolish animals.[12][14]

Compared with kitsune (foxes), which are the epitome of shape-changing animals, there is the saying that "the fox has seven disguises, the tanuki has eight (狐七化け、狸八化け)". The tanuki is thus superior to the fox in its disguises, but unlike the fox, which changes its form for the sake of tempting people, tanuki do so to fool people and make them seem stupid. There is also the theory that they simply like to change their form.[11]

Tanuki statues at a temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa, Japan.

Bake-Danuki by Area

Stories of bake-danuki are told in each area of Japan. There are especially many stories of tanuki in Shikoku, and whenever there are mysterious occurrences there, it would be the work of a tanuki. There are also ones known internationally like the Inugami Gyoubu and his eight hundred and eight followers of his household.

Three famous tanuki of Japan
Danzaburou-danuki (Sado island, Niigata Prefecture), Shibaemon-tanuki (Awaji Island, Hyōgo Prefecture), Yashima no Hage-tanuki (Yashima, Kagawa Prefecture)
Bunbuku Chagama
It is a folklore of the Morin-ji, in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture. A tanuki was disguised as a teapot belonging to a monk named Mamorizuru, and boiled tea that would never run out no matter how much one draws from it. In the Morinji no Kama from Konjaku Hyakki Shūi by Toriyama Sekien, it was named Bunbuku from the expression "Bunbukuka" (文武火?), meaning "literary and military fire," where the literary fire means the fire for reading by, and the military fire means destructive fire.
Sōko-tanuki (宗固狸?, lit. "religion adherence tanuki")
In the Gugyō-ji in Iinuma, Ibaraki Prefecture, there is a grave for this tanuki. It disguised as a monk for the temple, but one day, it took a nap and showed its true form. However, it was said that due to working there for a long time, this tanuki was then made a page.[11]
In Edo, as one of the seven mysteries of the town, there were sounds of a drum that come from nowhere that can be heard in the middle of the night that were called "tanuki-bayashi". It was the basis for the nursery rhyme, Shōjō-ji no Tanuki-bayashi, passed down at Shōjō-ji.
Fukurosage (袋下げ?, lit. "dangling bag")
Oomachi town, Kitaazumi District, Nagano Prefecture (now Ōmachi city). It was a tanuki who climbed a large tree, caught the attention of passersby, and dangled white bags.[15]
Owarezaka (負われ坂?, lit. "chase me hill")
Minamikawachi District, Osaka Prefecture. Upon passing by a certain hill during the night, there would be a voice saying "will you chase me, will you chase me (oware yo ka, oware yo ka)," and when a stout-hearted man says "should I chase, should I chase (outaro ka, outaro ka)," one would have already gone on top of a large stump of a pine tree. If one tries to return home and split it with a knife, the old tanuki would show its true form and apologize.[16]
Jūbakobaba (重箱婆?, lit. "jūbako old woman")
Tamana District, Kumamoto Prefecture and Hyūga, Miyazaki Prefecture. It is said that the old tanuki would disguise itself as an old woman with a jūbako in her hand. In Kumamoto, the jūbakobaba would furthermore, while saying "as a jūbakobaba (old woman with a jūbako), do you need a treat or not," deceive people with a rock-like object.[17][18]
The fūri can be seen in the Gazu Hyakki Yagyō, the Wakan Sansai Zue, and the Bencao Gangmu, with statements like "like wind among rocks, it climbs trees, and has a swiftness like flying birds." It is said that by looking for a particular kind of grass and holding it out to a bird, it can serve as bait.
Akadenchū (赤殿中?, lit. "red denchū")
Horie village, Itano District, Tokushima Prefecture (now Naruto). In the middle of night, it would disguise as a child disguised in a red denchū (a sleveless hanten), who insistently begs to be carried on one's back. Since it seems pleasant even when one carries it on one's back, it would beat on that person's shoulders.[19]
Kasasashi-tanuki (傘差し狸?, lit. "tanuki carrying an umbrella")
Ikeda, Miyoshi District, Tokushima Prefecture (now Miyoshi). During times like rainy evenings, it would disguise as a person with an umbrella and invite people. When a person who doesn't have an umbrella goes under it, it is said that they'd be taken to unbelievably out-there place.[19]
Kubitsuri-tanuki (首吊り狸?, lit. "neck-hanging tanuki")
Yutani, Hashikura, Miyoshi District, Tokushima Prefecture (now Miyoshi). It is said to lure people and cause them to be hung by the neck.[19]
Kozō-tanuki (小僧狸?, lit. "young priest tanuki")
Gakushima, Oe District, Tokushima Prefecture (now Yoshinogawa). It would disguise itself as a young priest and stand in the way of passersby, and if one gets angry and cuts it with a sword, it would multiply in numbers all night long.[19]
Bōzu-tanuki (坊主狸?, lit. "shaven-head tanuki")
Handa, Mima District, Tokushima Prefecture (now Tsurugi). When people cross a bridge named "Bōzu Bridge," before they know it, they would find their hair shaven.[19]
Shirodokkuri (白徳利?, lit. "white wine bottle")
Hyūgadani Muyachō Kokuwajima, Naruto, Tokushima, Tokushima Prefecture. This tanuki would disguise itself as a white wine bottle, but when people try to pick it up, it would roll around making it impossible for people to catch it.[19]
Usagi-tanuki (兎狸?, lit. "rabbit tanuki")
Tokushima Prefecture. On the small hill of Takaoka along the Yoshino River, it would disguise as a rabbit and run at ease, and when people find it and think of it as a suitable catch, they would end up running around Takaoka hill several times.[19]
Uchiwata-danuki (打綿狸?, lit. "strike cotton tanuki")
Kagawa Prefecture. It would transform its appearance into a piece of cotton and roll along the roadside, but when people try to pick it up, it would start to move and rise to the sky.[20]

Ongoing Popular Tradition

A common schoolyard song in Japan makes explicit reference to the tanuki's testicles:

<poem>Tan-tan-tanuki no kintama wa,

Kaze mo nai no ni,

Bura bu-ra</poem>
English translation:
<poem>Tan-tan-tanuki's bollocks ring,

The wind's stopped blowing,

but they swing-swing-swing!</poem>

It continues for several verses, with many regional variations.[21] The tune is an American Christian hymn, Shall we gather at the river?, written by American poet and gospel music composer Robert Lowry (1826–1899).

The legendary tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune, possibly created to coincide to the Hachi symbol (meaning 'eight') often found on the sake bottles the statues hold. The eight traits are these:

  • 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 symbolizes financial luck;
  • a promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
  • a big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness; and
  • a friendly smile.[22][23]

The statues available all over Japan of the tanuki are Shigaraki ware, a style of pottery long associated with tanuki imagery. According to Alice Gordenker, the modern version of the tanuki was developed by a potter named Tetsuzo Fujiwara, who moved to Shiga Prefecture in 1936 and whose pottery was admired even by the emperor.[21]

In Popular Culture

Tanuki are a recurring theme in Japanese popular culture. The first exposure of non-Japanese to tanuki often comes through exported Japanese media; however they are often described as "raccoons" in translation or assumed as such if no species is given.[24]

Some notable appearances of tanuki in popular culture include these:

  • In the video games Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario 3D Land, and Super Mario 3D World, Mario can wear a "Tanooki Suit". By doing so, he takes on the appearance of a tanuki and gains the ability to fly, spin his tail to attack enemies, and shape-shift into a statue. The same games also feature the "Super Leaf", which gives Mario tanuki ears and tails and allows him to fly and use his tail to attack, although this form is known as Raccoon Mario. This power up is based on the mythology of tanuki using leaves to help themselves transform.[24]
  • The Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko features a group of tanuki who use their shape-shifting powers to defend their habitat against human developers.[25]
  • The 2013 Japanese comedy-drama novel The Eccentric Family (有頂天家族, Uchōten Kazoku), later adapted into an anime series, tells the tale of family of magical tanuki who are coping with the death of their father after he was eaten by humans.
  • Tom Nook, a recurring character in the Animal Crossing video game series, is a tanuki, as well as his two nephews, Timmy and Tommy. In the English versions he is usually described as a raccoon, although his name still alludes to tanuki.
  • The Trainer in the Training Mode of the video game Star Fox 64 and its remake Star Fox 64 3D is likely a raccoon dog.
  • Chap's magical form in the PC-FX game Chip-chan Kick includes the ears and tail of a tanuki.
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies features an episode set in a village "founded by Japanese immigrants". One of the characters, Phineas Filch, is someone who has a resemblance to a tanuki, and steals items from others such as tanuki of legend. Filch is also often called a tanuki by Prosecutor Blackquill. The same episode also features a nine-tailed fox.
  • In the Japanese manga series Naruto, Gaara's power originates from One-Tailed Shūkaku, a tanuki, sealed in his body. This also gives Gaara tanuki-like rings around his eyes.
  • Mamizou Futatsuiwa from Touhou Project is a bake-tanuki, based on danzaburou danuki of Sado Island.
  • In the manga series One Piece, the character Chopper (a reindeer who possesses human qualities) is frequently mistaken for a tanuki due to his odd appearance.
  • At the beginning of action sequences (typically the leadup to a boss fight) in the Super Nintendo game The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, the player is given a warning by a tanuki statue, referred to in-game as "Raccoon Dog"; this serves as a continue point, should the player die before either completing the stage or finding an elephant in a pot.

Tanuki often appear alongside kitsune; for example, in Pom Poko kitsune are seen coexisting with human society as gangsters and prostitutes, in contrast to the tanuki who attempt to resist it,[25] while in Animal Crossing the player's town is sometimes visited by an unscrupulous kitsune art dealer named Redd. In Super Mario 3D Land, Luigi's equivalent of Mario's Tanooki suit instead resembles a fox, and in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney—Dual Destinies, a nine-tailed fox of legend is also featured alongside themes of tanuki.


  1. Dictionary entry for "tanuki gao".
  2. Kauhala, Kaarina (1994). "The Raccoon Dog: a successful canid". Canid News 2: 37–40.
  3. Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio; Hoffman, Michael; and MacDonald David W. Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals, and Dogs: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN; 2004. p136.
  4. Nie, Wenhui (November 2003). "Comparative chromosome painting defines the karyotypic relationships among the domestic dog, Chinese raccoon dog and Japanese raccoon dog" (fee required). Comparative chromosome painting defines the karyotypic relationships among the domestic dog, Chinese raccoon dog and Japanese raccoon dog 11 (8): 735–740.
  5. "Racoon Dog at IUCN Redlist". IUCN. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/summary/14925/0. Retrieved May 26, 2014. 
  6. Dōbutsu Yōkaitan.
  7. The translation of this into modern Japanese can be found on page 13 of Discover Yōkai Nihon Yōkai Daihyakka (『DISCOVER妖怪 日本妖怪大百科 VOL.07』?). Furthermore, the 「狢」 in the document here are not mujina but rather, signify tanuki
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Dōbutsu Yōkaitan, 105–139.
  9. (2008) “Yōkai to natta kitsune to tanuki (妖怪となった狐と狸?)”, Kōdansha Comic Create (講談社コミッククリエイト?) Discover Yōkai Nihon Yōkai Daihyakka (DISCOVER妖怪 日本妖怪大百科?). Kōdansha.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Tanuki to sono sekai, 209–212.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7 Gensō sekai no jūnintachi, 235–240.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Minkan shinkō jiten.
  13. (1978) Tanuki no hanashi (狸の話?), 226–230, Arimine Shoten.
  14. Tanuki to sono sekai.
  15. Tokihiko Ōto (1955). Minzokugaku Kenkyuu Shohen (Folkloristics Research Compilation) 綜合日本民俗語彙, Kunio Yanagita, 監修 (in Japanese), 平凡社. NCID BN05729787.
  16. 大藤時彦他 (1955). 民俗学研究所編 綜合日本民俗語彙, 柳田國男, 監修 (in Japanese), 平凡社. NCID BN05729787.
  17. 能田太郎 (August 1935). "玉名郡昔話 (3)" (in Japanese). 昔話研究 1 (4). 三元社. NCID AN00407060.
  18. 加藤恵 (December 1989). "県別日本妖怪事典" (in Japanese). 歴史読本 第34巻 (24(515)). 新人物往来社. NCID AN00133555.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 19.6 笠井 1927, pp. 261–263
  20. 三宅周一 (August 1939). "妖怪語彙" (in Japanese). 民間伝承 4巻 (11号). 民間伝承の会. NCID AN00236605.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Gordenker, Alice (25 July 2008). "Tanuki genitals". The Japan Times. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2008/07/15/news/tanuki-genitals/#.UTKcefLAFzs. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  22. Shigaraki Tourist Association. E-shigaraki.org. Retrieved on 2011-01-24.
  23. Tanuki – Japanese God of Restaurateurs, Japanese Buddhism & Shintoism Photo Dictionary. Onmarkproductions.com. Retrieved on 2011-01-24.
  24. 24.0 24.1 (2008) “Japanese Dominance of the Video-game Industry”, Mark I. West The Japanification of Children's Popular Culture. Scarecrow Press.
  25. 25.0 25.1 (2006) “The Werewolf in the Crested Kimono”, Frenchy Lunning Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga, Volume 1. University of Minnesota Press.


  • (1974) Nihon Minzokushi Taikei (日本民俗誌大系?). Kadokawa Shoten.
  • (1980) Minkan shinkō jiten (民間信仰辞典?). Tōkyōdō Shuppan.
  • Katsumi, Tada (1990). Gensō sekai no jūnintachi (幻想世界の住人たち?). Shinkigensha.
  • Nakamura, Teiri (1990). Tanuki to sono sekai (狸とその世界?). Asahi Shinbunsha.
  • Hino, Iwao (2006). Dōbutsu yōkaitan (動物妖怪譚?). Chūō Kōron Shinsha.

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