I promised a while back that I would write a piece on the raccoon dog or tanuki, and now seems as good a time as any. This time I want to look at some of the folklore and tales surrounding the raccoon dog.
The raccoon dog is known as a trickster (even when not depicted as a shape-shifter), but whose character ranges from lovable prankster to malicious killer. Let us examine some folk tales that display these.
Bunbukuchagama tells of a raccoon dog that transforms itself into a tea kettle (some versions say as repayment for the poor man who freed it from a trap). Unable to stand the heat of the fire and now incapable of properly transforming back into its true self, it helps the poor man make a living by performing – tightrope walking is the most frequently depicted performance. When the raccoon dog dies, it is preserved as a kettle. The Morinji Temple in Tatebayashi, Gunma has a version in which the raccoon dog transforms himself into a priest with a never-emptying tea kettle. The temple is said to still possess this kettle.
Interestingly, there is a similar tale from Yamagata which is woven around a fox instead of a raccoon dog.
Shojoji Tanuki Bayashi tells of a group of raccoon dogs who scare away priests from the nearby temple by transforming themselves into various spectres (notably the hitomekozo and rokurokukubi).
One day a new priest, Wako, arrives. He is not at all scared by the apparitions and stays. The raccoon dogs try to drive him away with noise instead and hold parties at night. Wako sneaks up to see what the raccoon dogs are up to and, deciding that they are having fun, starts playing his shamisen.
Not to be outdone, the raccoon dogs drum harder on their bellies (It needs to be pointed out that in popular folklore, raccoon dogs have large pot-bellies which they pound like drums).
This musical battle continues for four nights. The great leader, determined not to be beaten by a priest, pounds too hard on his stomach, bursting it and killing him. Wako conducts a funeral for the leader.
A more child-friendly version says that the leader doesn’t die, but Wako heals him with a salve.
There is a children’s song dating from the 1920s based on this story.
Kachi-kachi Yama is a tale of murder and leporine vengeance.
An old childless couple live in the mountains. (The “old, childless couple” is a staple of Japanese fairy tales, much in line with the poor farmer or wood cutter of the Grimms. Since the eldest son – or the husband of the eldest daughter – was the source of social security, being old and childless was the worst state to be in). This couple, however, have a special friend – a hare (often mistranslated as rabbit) – who they treat like a child.
The couple also have an enemy – a racoon dog – who not only openly steals from their garden but taunts them.
One day the old man manages to trap the raccoon dog. He takes it to the old woman and tells her to make tanuki jiru from it.
Now alone with the old woman, the raccoon dog begs for mercy and promises to help her. Being a kind old soul, the woman releases the racoon dog, who snatches up a mill hammer and clubs the woman to death with it.
Some versions of the story then have the villainous raccoon dog cook the body into soup and transform itself into a likeness of the old woman. When the old man comes home, the raccoon dog gives him the soup to eat before revealing his identity (and the old man’s mortal sin) and then running away.
The hare, hearing about what has happened, promises revenge.
He sets several traps of pain for the raccoon dog, which vary with the story. The one common to all versions is tricking the raccoon dog into carrying a bundle of firewood on its back and using a flint to set the pack alight. (The Japanese onomatopoeia for the striking of the flint is kachi-kachi; when the raccoon dog asks the hare about the noise, he replies that it is the sound of “Kachi-Kachi Mountain”, leading to the title of the story)
Other torturous deceptions include treating the burns with a salty miso or hot chilli mix, dropping a hornet nest on his head and the finale of tricking the racoon dog into rowing out into the lake in a boat made of clay. As the boat dissolves, the hare bludgeons the raccoon dog with his oar, completing his revenge.
There is a Mt. Kachi Kachi on Lake Kawaguchi.
Statues of raccoon dogs are frequently found outside bars. In this guise, they are depicted as jolly characters possessing large pot-bellies and huge testicles, and usually carrying a bottle of drink and wearing a sun hat.
The raccoon dog is also the mascot of okonomiyaki restaurant chain Dotonbori.
Raccoon dogs are said to be fond of tempura; and noodles (soba and udon) containing tempura are labelled “tanuki”. (In the same vein, foxes are said to have a similar fondness of fried tofu, and noodles containing this are known as “kitsune”.)
A sly old person (the epithetical “old fox” in English) is often known as a tanuki in Japanese.
Raccoon dogs are a favourite subject of children’s songs, and the lyrics frequently refer to them drumming on their bellies. This is the inspiration behind the title of the Studio Ghibli film Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) – which I recommend seeing as an insight into the plight of these animals and how they are viewed in popular culture.
Finally, I stumbled across a saying in my reading: hitotsuana no mujina (一つ穴の狢) or onajiana no munjina (同じ穴の狢), meaning “villains of the same stripe”. Apparently, the proverb has its origins in the belief that raccoon dogs shared part of a badger’s burrow.
The raccoon dog ranks very high on my wish-to-see-in-the-wild list.