Monster of the Week: Tanuki (狸)

Being one of the most popular creatures in Japanese folklore, the Tanuki  (狸), or raccoon dog, is the perfect subject for Monster of the Week. Not only does it have a rich background, it is also still very popular in modern Japan. Tanuki statues are a common sight in Japan and they are even regarded as luck bringers for restaurants and pubs. The tanuki is also popular in animation films, Studio Ghibli even made an entire movie about them called “Pompoko”.

A real tanuki

A real tanuki

What is the tanuki?

The tanuki is based on the raccoon-like typical Japanese animal that once was a common sight in the Japanese fields and forests. But urban growth and pollution has sadly had a big influence on their natural habitat. Tanuki in their natural form are mostly recognised by conical straw hats and enormous testicles. These testicles are very important for the tanuki as they are totally flexible, extensible, mobile and can be used for shapeshifting.

A ballsy move to catch birds

A ballsy move to catch birds

What does the tanuki do?

This monster loves to shapeshift. They can shift into any form that they like. Most of the time, they transform themselves into inanimate objects, this way people don’t know that they are being watched. They can also transform into humans. Their biggest “tool” is their testicles. These ultra-flexible balls can stretch out to almost 12 square meters and can be transformed into anything. They can be used as a raincoat, drums or even a disguise to impersonate other monsters.

But why do they shapeshift? They actually like to play pranks on humans and steal their money. Although they can really turn into anything, their pranks never turn evil. This gives them the title of “wild card” in the yōkai world. They are so extremely fond of good food and rich drinks, that they often kidnap and then impersonate brides or grooms so they can eat at the banquets of the weddings.

Tanuki fishing skills

Tanuki fishing skills

How can you escape?

Tanuki are more mischievous than evil so they will never put your life in danger. The only things that you have to worry about are your money and your pride. Since they are the “wild card” of the pranksters, their plans often go wrong and backfire. So if you ever find your wallet filled with leaves, or if you find your groom in the closet after the weddings, you’ve probably been pranked by a tanuki.

Famous tanuki statues

Famous tanuki statues

Tanuki in modern time Japan.

As mentioned before, the tanuki are seen as luck bringers. There are quite some businesses, mostly restaurants and pubs, that have a tanuki statue outside. In older times, craftmen even wrapped golden nuggets in tanuki pelts and sold them as lucky tanuki testicles. This is a lucky charm that is still very common in Japan today.

Also, in the famous Studio Ghibli movie “Pompoko”, a clan of tanuki work together to stop the humans from destroying their home and their habitat. They are often used as a symbol for nature in the constant struggle between urbanisation and nature.

Finally, two of the most popular noodle dishes in Japan are called tanuki soba and tanuki udon. These are both noodle dishes that just have tiny chunks of fried batter in them. These tiny chunks are traditionally left over batter from making tempura. It is said that these dishes get their name because the thought of paying money for empty bits of batter is the perfect tanuki prank.

Tanuki soba!

Tanuki soba!

Just remember, prepare some code words with your bride or groom before the wedding. You never know if the person next to you who’s stuffing his or her face with food is a tanuki or not.

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