Tag Archives: tanuki

If you go down to the woods today…

29 Apr

The things you see when you don’t have a camera!

April 24th
I arrive at my school, still tingling from the previous day’s unexplained headache, when I spot movement.
Our local raccoon dogs. Two… no, wait, THREE.

Sorry about the picture quality – a mobile phone just doesn’t cut it for wildlife photography.

Raccoon dog as seen from a classroom window.

Two of the three I spotted that morning.

Last year I spotted a pair during a lesson… luckily, none of the students noticed!

Oh, and I spotted a pair of Chinese bamboo partridges on the way home.
Moral of the day? Travel around with a proper camera!




Tanuki Tales

11 Jan

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.


A “fuuri” tanuki by Hokusai.

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.


An illustration of Morinji Bumbuku Chagama by Sekien

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.


Tanuki band by Utagawa

Monuent in the Shojoji Temple grounds with lyrics to the children’s song.

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.

Exhibit A: the murder weapon. A mortar and pounding mallet.

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.


The hare setting light to the raccoon dog’s load.

A Tokyo Metro warning about the danger of fires in mountains playing on the Kachi-kachi Yama story. Thanks to The Goat That Wrote for this picture.

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.


A raccoon dog in priest’s clothing photographed in Kawagoe.

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.

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.

Splitting hairs? An adventure in Cross-Linguistic Naming

6 Nov

One of the interesting aspects of doing any anything nature-related in Japan is the difference in nomenclature between the English and Japanese languages.

Most non-linguists tend to think in very absolute terms – generally along the lines that their language’s interpretation of the world is the only one.  They are usually also guilty of believing that every word has an exact counterpart in other languages.


Let’s take a simple example, like “caterpillar”.

Simple, right?


Are you talking about a smooth-skinned caterpillar (further divided into “green” and “not green”!), a not-green looper or inchworm, or a hairy larval form of a moth or butterfly?  The Japanese language makes distinctions between all of these.

The smooth-skinned caterpillars come under the term “imomushi” (芋虫).  This group has two more sub-divisions: loopers or inchworms, called “shakutorimushi” (尺取り虫) – “measuring insect”, and the green-coloured varieties or “aomushi” (青虫) – “green insect”.

It’s green! The caterpillar of the swallowtail on a mandarin tree.

It bears mentioning here that the Japanese word “mushi”, while often translated as “insect”, is closer in meaning to the American generic “bug”, or the “creepy-crawly” of my childhood.  Thus, insects, spiders, centipedes, snails and worms can all come under the vernacular “mushi”

And if that’s not confusing enough, “ao” is usually translated as “blue”, but in reality covers a whole range of colours from blue to the light greens.  Green vegetables are “blue vegetables”, the green traffic light is also “blue”.  Translation work sometimes leaves me feeling blue (or is that green?)


The other group of caterpillars is the one whose members possess hair or spines as defensive mechanisms.  These are collectively known as “kemushi” (毛虫) – “hair insects”.  Most of these are the larval forms of moths, but some butterfly larvae are also in this group.


To complicate the issue further, there are also common names given to specific caterpillars.  An example of this is the moth Monema flavescens, known locally as iraga (刺蛾), although at least a dozen regional names also exist.  The larval form is called iramushi (刺虫), and loves persimmon leaves.  I can tell you from personal experience, you DON’T want to touch one of these!!  Just brushing against it produced more pain than a bee sting, and a rash which lasted all day.


Twenty milimetres of pain – the larval form of the iraga moth. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve just mentioned regional names, and these can cause confusion too.  Freshwater fish often have several different regional names, making it difficult to be sure which fish is being discussed.  Furthermore, the regional name for one fish may be the same as another regional name for a different fish.

Another example of identity crisis of is the raccoon dog, or tanuki (), with the badger, or anaguma (穴熊).  Both these animals are superficially similar, but are not closely related at all.  In some parts of the country, a dish known as tanukijiru (“tanuki soup”) is known, but it more likely contains the meat of the badger – assuming it contains meat at all.  Another dish bearing the same name is a vegetarian dish, the meat being substituted with konyaku.

Confusion arises because both these animals have been known as mujina () in different areas.  The soup in question was often known as mujinajiru.  Ascertaining which animal “mujina” refers to is difficult at best.


Spot the differences. Tanuki (top) and Japanese badger (bottom). Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

The tanuki is a fascinating animal and deserves its own blog entry.


Now to the flipside – distinctions made in the English language but not in Japanese.


I recently learned that there are no rabbits on mainland Japan.  Japan’s only true rabbit is the Amami rabbit, Amamikurousagi (奄美黒兎) of Amamioshima and Tokunoshima islands.  The “rabbit” of Japanese folk tales is actually a hare – Nihon nousagi (日本野兎) or just nousagi (野兎).  The generic word usagi in Japanese can be either a rabbit or a hare – the language doesn’t make the distinction.  (It doesn’t split hares?)


A translation of “Kachi-Kachi Yama”. The hare has been translated as “rabbit”, and the tanuki described as “a kind of badger” – it’s actually a member of the dog family. Scanned from “Once Upon a Time in Japan”, Kodansha, 1985

Another generic word is hachi ().  Most Japanese (and their Japanese-English dictionaries) translate this word as “bee”.  In fact, the insect in question is more likely to be a wasp or hornet.  There are specific names for different bees and wasps, but the bee/wasp distinction is not made.


Bees and wasps. Clocwise from top left: Japanese hornet, Japanese honey bee, large carpenter bee, paper wasp. All “hachi” in Japanese.  Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

And finally, turtles and tortoises.

Growing up in Australia in the 1980’s, we (or rather, herpetologists) had three turtle/tortoise distinctions – turtles (specifically flippered sea animals), tortoises (club-footed or clawed animals that spend most of their time on land) and freshwater tortoises (animals with webbed feet and living in lakes and rivers) – also known as terrapins in the UK.  In the ‘90s, this changed to just turtles (aquatic or marine animals) and tortoises (terrestrial animals).

In Japanese, these animals are known collectively as kame ().  But then, the Japanese language has a separate word for soft-shelled turtles – suppon ().


This is just a small selection of some of the challenges of cross-linguistic wildlife watching.  There is no “right” or “superior” language for dealing with nature – one needs only an open and inquisitive mind.

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