Tag Archives: civets

Masked Palm Civet – Newcomer, Oldcomer, or Native?

23 Jan

Hi blog.

We’re experiencing some of the coldest weather for years.  Snow has been forecast on a few days but hasn’t fallen to any real extent.  Instead, we’ve experienced days of single digit maximum temperatures – including at least one when the maximum outside converged with fridge temperature, and another when the pipes froze up enough to stop all water to our kitchen until after 11!

Apart from birds – and we know the logistical problems of photographing those with a mobile phone – the possibilities for finding interesting wildlife to write about are quite limited.

I thought I’d take a break from nature and look at some folklore and mythology, and borrowed some books about ghosts and supernatural creatures from my local library.  But an apparently real historical account with a strange animal grabbed my interest.

According to the Kikaishu, a pair of strange animals were sighted at a shrine in Edo in the summer of 1799.  The larger one escaped, but the smaller one was struck with a stick and brought to the home of the land owner.

The actual description is quite vague.  The animal revived, and was observed to eat chicken, fish, and fruit, but ignore grains.  It was about the size a small dog, but looked like a weasel.  Its colour was black with a yellowish-red patch from its chest to its jaw, interspersed with black spots, but no information is recorded as to the number of toes, whether or not it could climb trees, and the like.  What is certain is that the observers were familiar enough with weasels to recognise it as something other than a weasel, ermine or marten.

The illustration is not particularly helpful either – we have no idea as to whether the artist even saw the creature in question.

The creature described in the Kikaishu

However, I believe the mystery animal is a civet.

A masked palm civet, courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned the masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) in other posts, and there are arguments as to whether or not it is a native species, a species introduced centuries ago, or a late-19th century or early-20th century import, or possibly even a combination of the above.

I personally suspect its official status as an invasive species and unofficial status as agricultural pest are interlinked – it is easier to declare an animal a pest if it is perceived to not be native.

So, if the masked palm civet (or possibly other civet species) existed in Japan pre-1869, where is the evidence?  There appears to be no fossil evidence of viverrids in Japan.  However, there are regional variations in Japanese civet’s coat patterns, and differences in skull measurements between Japanese and overseas specimens, suggesting the existence of a native sub-species.  And while there are no old records specifically of civets – there was no Japanese name for them at that time – it is easy to imagine them included under the old names of mujina and mami.

Furthermore, there are dozens of cryptids in Japanese folklore.  Some believe the civet to be the basis of (at least some of) the legends of the raiju.  Raiju (雷獣) – literally “lightning beasts” – were believed to live in the skies but occasionally fall to earth during thunderstorms.

Raiju in an 1841 print by Takehara. These creatures bear more than a passing resemblance to masked palm civets, don’t you think?

The raiju has many regional –and often bizarre – variations, including appearing like a six-legged, two-tailed wolf, a crab that walks on four claws, and a seahorse-like beast.  The ones relevant to this post, however, are typically described as: being the size of a dog, cat or mujina; possessing a racoon dog-like coat; having five eagle-like claws; having sharp teeth; and being racoon dog-like in appearance.  More about the raiju can be found here.

Masked palm civets are sometimes confused with racoon dogs, badgers, raccoons and even cats to the extent that pest control companies, local governments and NPO groups publish pamphlets on how to distinguish and identify the animals in question.  If semi-rural people in the internet age have trouble telling a racoon dog from a civet, imagine how much harder it would have been for an urbanised Edo-ite.

Masked palm civets are partially arboreal and generally nocturnal.  However, it is not hard to imagine individuals being knocked out of or forced down from a tree during a thunder storm.  Growing to a body length of around 60 cm and a tail of 40 cm, it is significantly larger than a weasel and matches the size of some of the cryptid animals described above.  Equally important, civets have five toes on each foot, distinguishing them from cats and racoon dogs.  They are omnivores, and like fruit with high sugar content, in addition to small prey.

Now, nothing I’ve said proves anything about the origins of Japan’s masked palm civets.  I personally believe that they were most likely introduced – possibly unintentionally – several hundred years ago.  I’d be even happier, though, if solid evidence could point to a native population.  Hopefully, research will throw more light on the subject.

Mujina and Mami – the Myth and the Mammals

28 Nov

On the Akasaka Road, in Tokyo, there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka,—which means the Slope of the Province of Kii. I do not know why it is called the Slope of the Province of Kii. On one side of this slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens;—and on the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace. Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset.

All because of a Mujina that used to walk there.


The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyobashi quarter, who died about thirty years ago. This is the story, as he told it:—

One night, at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, when he perceived a woman crouching by the moat, all alone, and weeping bitterly. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped to offer her any assistance or consolation in his power. She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family. “O-jochu,” [1] he exclaimed, approaching her,—”O-jochu, do not cry like that!… Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you, I shall be glad to help you.” (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.) But she continued to weep,—hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochu,” he said again, as gently as he could,—”please, please listen to me!… This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you!—only tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded:—”O-jochu!—O-jochu!—O-jochu!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochu!—O-jochu!”… Then that O-jochu turned around, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand;—and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,—and he screamed and ran away.

Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, [2] who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the soba-seller, crying out, “Ah!—aa!!—aa!!!”…

“Kore! kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! what is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”

“No—nobody hurt me,” panted the other,—”only… Ah!—aa!”

“—Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”

“Not robbers,—not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman—by the moat;—and she showed me… Ah! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…

“He!  Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face—which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.



 [1] O-jochu (“honorable damsel”), a polite form of address used in speaking to a young lady whom one does not know.

 [2] Soba is a preparation of buckwheat, somewhat resembling vermicelli.


“Mujina” from Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn

(footnotes are Hearn’s originals)


Kwaidan was published in 1904, shortly before Hearn died.  It seems strange that his footnotes do not include a definition for “mujina” – the uninformed reader is likely to conclude that it is the faceless apparition, not some mischievous shape-shifting critter.

In another of his stories – “Common Sense” from Kotto, in which a priest is tricked with a vision of the Fugen Bosatsu and saved by a hunter – Hearn specifically states that the goblinry was the work of a badger.


In Japanese folklore, shape shifting is attributed to three animals – foxes, cats (under certain conditions) and raccoon dogs.  Hearn’s “mujina” and “badger” undoubtably refer to the raccoon dog.


A shape-shifting mujina by Toriyama Sekien. I personally think it looks more like a cat…

I had originally intended this to be a post about the raccoon dog, or tanuki, but while doing some background research I realized that simply clearing up the name would be a post in itself.


Previously I mentioned overlapping and crossover between dialectal names of raccoon dogs and badgers.  Here is probably a good point for clear definition.


Racoon dog or tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) – a member of the family that includes dogs, wolves and foxes.  The raccoon dog has five digits on its front paws and four on its rear paws.  It is not, despite its English name, related to raccoons.  The modern Japanese name is hondo tanuki.


Badger (Meles meles anakuma) – a member of the weasel family.  It has five digits on both its front and rear paws.  Its modern Japanese name is Nihon anaguma.


Both animals are of similar size and build, both live in holes (the badger preferring to burrow, while the raccoon dog prefers rock crags, hollow logs or burrows dug by other animals), and both hibernate in winter (the raccoon dog being the only member of the dog family to do so).  They share similar dietary habits, although the raccoon dog is less picky.  They also both have dark patches forming a “mask” around their eyes – the badger’s “mask” consists of two vertical stripes, while the raccoon dog’s being more of a “Zorro mask” – and both are primarily nocturnal.  It is not hard to see how the two could be confused.


Depending on the region, mujina ( or the older ) could be used to describe either animal, or loosely, both!

A mujina according to the Wakansansaizue

I found a story of a 1924 court case involving the illegal hunting of raccoon dogs.  The defendant was declared not guilty because his understanding was that it was illegal to hunt mujina after March 1st, but not illegal to hunt raccoon dogs.

Even today in parts of Tochigi, the raccoon dog is known as mujina and the badger is known as tanuki.  And in other regions, the term is used to refer to the civet.


The masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) is something of an enigma itself.  It appears to be an introduced species, but some scholars believe it to be native.  Its local name is hakubishin (白鼻芯).  It has a slighter build than either the raccoon dog or badger, and is more cat-like in appearance, but still bears some resemblance.


Further confusing the issue (as if it isn’t already confusing enough) is another old term, mami ().  Mami can refer to mujina, meaning that it could be either a raccoon dog or a badger; however, it has also been used in reference to Japan’s two varieties of flying squirrel!


A mami according to the Wakansansaizue. It looks like a mujina to me…

A mami from the Kyokahyakumonogatari. I find this deptiction to most closely resemble the raccoon dog.

“Will the REAL mami please stand up?” The raccoon dog, badger, giant Japanese flying squirrel and masked palm civet have all been known as “mujina” or “mami”.

Furthermore, the ideograms for writing these names may have obscure older or secondary meanings.  The character for raccoon dog () traces its roots to China and refers to a wild cat.  (Is this the reason for shape-shifting to be attributed to cats in a more urbanized 17th century?)

The character for mami () can also mean a kind of wild boar.  It also turns up in the names of several supernatural beings.


A mami attacking travellers at dusk. This version seems to resemble a civet.

Hearn produced several chapters on singing insects, dragonflies, butterflies, frogs, folklore and mythology.  I’m sure that the subject of raccoon dogs, badgers, mujina and mami could have provided him with more than enough material for a small volume.

All images are public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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