The Tanuki: between legend and reality

The surprising Japanese youkai

Facetious and benevolent, tanuki is a youkai "strange apparition" particularly appreciated and adored in Japanese folklore. Under its appearance of a  playful raccoon with a very fleshy belly and a friendly guise, the tanuki is a popular icon with mysterious power.

The tale of the magic teapot

Originally from China, the legend of tanuki appears in Japan between the 4 and 7th centuries. He is then perceived as a malevolent creature; an image inherited from Chinese legends in which the tanuki, having taken on human appearance, haunts men.

But over the centuries, his image evolved making him a harmless and humorous character, synonymous with prosperity. Japanese texts of the 8th century were mentioned but remained relatively unknown until the early 17 century. It was at this time that the change took place.

Legends of the Edo period (1603-1868), like the tale Bunbuku Chagama, shape him as a fantastical creature capable of taking on any appearance. In some stories, he has to place a leaf over his head first. Bunbuku Chagama, literally "Bunbuku tea-kettle" appeared in the seventeenth century. In legend, Bunbuku Chagama is the name of a tea kettle owned by priest Shukaku who turned out to be a tanuki, the supposed kettle still on view at Morin-jinja] temple which Shukaku served.


Tanuki. Estampe d'Hokusai

This strange and bewildering ability is said to have its origins in the work of goldsmiths in Kanagawa Prefecture, used to wrap the gold in a tanuki skin when it was transformed into thin leaves. The flexible and strong skin allowed the gold to be hammered as finely as possible. Thus was born the myth of the giant and stretchable scrotum.

Prints contributed to its propagation; making kinbukuro an indispensable characteristic of tanuki. In 1842, Kuniyoshi produced an 'ukiyo-e" series featuring the incredible and surprising abilities of tanuki scrotums... serves as a fishing net, boat, umbrella, blankets ...


Jibiki danuki (1842). Estampe de Kuniyoshi


Les tanuki de Pompoko utilisent leur scrotum en guise de parachute!

Studio Ghibli

Pompoko is also the title of Isao Takahata's anime, produced by Studio Ghibli in 1994. In this one, the tanuki fight to stop construction work and conserve their natural habitat in the countryside. The tradition of the giant scrotum is also maintained there since the tanuki of Isao Takahata uses their scrotums as parachutes! Popular culture has completely appropriated this youkai.

Today, Tanuki is widely used as a mascot, anime character, and even in video games! The legendary mustached plumber acquired the ability to transform himself into Mario- tanuki in Super Mario Bros 3 in 1988. In front of restaurants and bars, you will often find effigies of tanuki, this mischievous creature who loves to feast and drink. These statues are mostly produced in the ceramic workshops of Shigaraki (Shiga prefecture). Some temples are dedicated to the tanuki kami. The Yashima-ji in Takamatsu and the Chingodo in Asakusa are perfect examples.


Les protagonistes de l'anime Pompoko sont des tanuki

Studio Ghibli


Tanuki au Chingodo à Asakusa


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