Tanuki Magic: Exploring Japan’s Raccoon Dog Folklore!


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Along with kitsune (Japanese fox), the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) is also a strange yokai (Japanese ghost or spirit) famous for its ability to transform in Japanese folklore. However, suppose kitsune or the Japanese kappa are considered more dangerous and scheming yokai. In that case, the tanuki is more mischievous and lovable, possessing a lot of magic but primarily harmless to humans. The tanuki is known as the mascot of prosperity in Japan. 

What is a Tanuki?

At first glance, the tanuki looks like a cat bear, but they are mythological raccoons with sharp teeth. According to Japanese folklore, the tanuki is well-adapted to various environments, from mountain forests to urban areas, and possesses various magical abilities. Unlike foxes in the myths of many countries worldwide, tanuki are only in Japan.

Two real-life tanuki, also known as raccoon dogs, sit together on all fours on a mountain in Japan with many leaves, green and brown around them.
Much like the kitsune, this myth is based on a real animal, often called the raccoon dog in English. Image via Shutterstock

Some people interpret its luck by using homophony. Ta「他」(other things) and nuki-「抜き」(to omit) can ultimately be understood as abandoning all else and leaving only the good things. In the West, people mainly know tanuki through video games such as Super Mario Bros 3. The Mario character can especially use an outfit called the Tanooki Suit, allowing him to fly and transform into a statue. Meanwhile, Animal Crossing players may recognize this creature thanks to Tom Nook.

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The Eight Symbolic Meanings of Tanuki Statues

The Tanuki statue’s image has changed to something somewhat different from reality. The features on the statue are “hassoengi“(八相縁), representing the eight signs of good luck.

  • A hat to protect yourself from trouble and unexpected accidents.
  • Big eyes help you observe and pay attention to everything around you to make the right decisions.
  • A smiley face represents friendliness and being kind to others.
  • Their wine bottle contains Japanese sake (rice wine) with the meaning of learning the qualities and character of a person who does not have to worry about eating.
  • The book is a place to record cash in and out. This is an important item to create trust when borrowing money with the desire to build a trusting relationship between people.
  • The belly drum represents a steady, calm, and daring attitude when handling situations.
  • The “golden bags” represent luck that will get better and better and create more and more money or fortune.
  • Their big tail helps to support the balance of the body, implying stability. It also represents the end, so it also has another meaning of wishing everything to end firmly.
A bowl of hot tanuki soba, called so because of the golden tempura fried bits decorating half of the dish with the other half having green onions and fish cakes on top.
This creature’s “golden bags” are so famous that tanuki soba (buckwheat noodles with fried batter bits) is named so because of the golden bits of fried batter over the noodles. Image via Shutterstock

Tanuki’s powers in Japanese legends 

There are many legends about tanuki, its personality, and its magical power. Although humans often tease them, they are also famous for their mildness, being willing to help those who treat them well.


The tanuki’s most outstanding power is transformation. They’re fond of transforming into humans and imitating human lifestyles and their terrible habits. Tanuki often pretends to be human beings who enjoy drinking, gambling, cheating, stealing, and lying. They’ve even impersonated monks who studied Buddhism and taught it to people. 

Thanks to his transformation techniques, intelligence, and quick adaptability, these creatures can live almost a lifetime in human guise without being easily spotted.

Mischief Making

However, one of the more popular hobbies of these creatures is pranking humans. They can become household items to tease you, giant monsters to scare you, or turn leaves into money to cheat. 

Eleven tanuki statues stand in a shop with tags on each one in varying sizes, poses, and expressions, all with hats, sake bottles, and other normal tanuki symbls.
These little guys may be known as tricksters, but their statues can be found across Japan as a symbol of fortune. Image via Shutterstock

Tanuki also often make jokes about humans, such as pretending to talk to farmers in the dark or making fishermen think their nets are full of fish, but the fishing nets are empty.

They also often turn into local officials, go to houses, and play many weird tricks to prank the owner. 

According to legend, there are ways to determine if a person is a tanuki based on the kimono they wear. Additionally, if someone walks in the rain and remains dry, they may be a tanuki. TanuTanukis’ic becomes unstable while distracted, which can lead to their tails being exposed.

The Golden Bags

An attractive characteristic that comes to mind when anyone thinks of a tanuki is its “golden bags.” According to legend, this creature can stretch the skin as wide as eight tatami mats in that area. Ancient people described the pulled skin as turning into a sail, fishing net, swimming pool, or even a shield against an enemy.

Have you seen a tanuki in real life in Japan? What other myths about this unique creature have you heard about? Let us know in the comments below!

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