© Tomihiko Morimi, GENTOSHA/Uchoten-Kazoku 2 Committee

A “tanuki” is an animal that often appears throughout anime like The Eccentric Family (Uchōten Kazoku) and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun (Gekkan Shojo Nozaki-kun). But because it doesn’t live in places like the North America or Europe, some viewers don’t really know what a tanuki is. Is it a raccoon? Is it a badger? No, a tanuki is, well, a tanuki, and it has a lot of cultural history in Japan.

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First, let’s start out with the real animal itself. The tanuki may also be known as the Japanese raccoon dog or the nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus. This species of raccoon dog only lives in Japan, as opposed to the plain old raccoon dog which lives in regions of Eastern Asia, including China and Siberia. Japanese raccoon dogs are usually a bit larger than the racoons seen in North America, measuring an average of 60cm in length. However, they have a shorter set of legs and tail than the North American raccoon. The raccoon dogs are also missing the trademark mask marking of Northern raccoons.

Although the two are called “raccoons” and belong to the same order (Carnivora), there is nothing else that relates them as a species. Despite this, the tanuki has often been mistranslated as raccoon or badger, like in the famous Ghibli film Pom Poko.

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Aside from being fluffy mascots, tanuki have a deep connection to Japanese folklore. There are many tales about tanuki using leaves to transform not just into people, but also into objects, which is why in The Eccentric Family, you can often see the tanuki in the show changing into human form, but also into things like lucky cat statues. (As a sidenote, this is also why Mario in the Super Mario series of games transforms into his tanuki suit form with the help of a leaf.)

Sometimes, they transform themselves into different objects to cause trouble. In one tale, for example, a tanuki transforms into kettle for a farmer to sell after being saved from a hunter’s trap as thanks, but it turns out that kettles are meant to be filled with hot water! If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen they say, so the kettle sprouts tanuki legs and arms and skedaddles.

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In folklore, tanuki also have the power to create illusions. They play pranks on farmers and fishermen and others by making people think that leaves are dollars or that fish nets are full with fish when in fact, they’re empty. In fact, tanuki are famous to be such tricksters that the word “tanuki” is also used as an insult in Japanese to refer to someone who is sly and/or sneaky.

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Despite their mischievous nature, tanuki are also used as a symbol of wealth and luck in Japan. In front of some restaurants and bars, you might find large statues of tanuki, which started appearing in Japan in the 1900’s.

If you look closely, you might notice that the tanuki statues have giant testicles. Yes, testicles. In folktales, it’s said that tanuki were able to stretch these magical balls out into boats and other objects. Although of course tanuki scrotums aren’t that big, Japanese craftsmen used to wrap gold in tanuki scrotum skin because of its supposed elasticity and strength in order to hammer the gold into gold leaf. Combined with the slang word for balls—kintama, literally “gold balls”—this use of the tanuki lead to the creature becoming a representation of wealth.

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Dont’ have enough tanuki in your life? Some anime that feature tanuki include The Eccentric Family, Gugure! Kokkuri-san, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Inuyasha, Poco’s Udon World, and Pom Poko.

The second season of The Eccentric Family will premiere on Japanese television on April 9. Crunchyroll will stream the anime with English subtitles as it airs. Season 1 of the anime is not currently available for streaming, but NIS America released the first season on Blu-ray in 2015.

Sources: Food Habits of the Raccoon Dog Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus in a Mountainous Area of Japan by Hiroshi Sasaki and Midori Kawabata (1994), Raccoon Control, A-to-Z Photo Dictionary Japanese Buddhist Sanctuary, Tofugu

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