The Tanuki, also known as the Raccoon Dog or Japanese Badger (Nyctereutes procyonoides), is usually described as a member of the canine family that more closely resembles a raccoon. Its genus Nyctereutes means “Night Wanderer,” an appropriate name for the mischievous, shape-shifting spirits also called Tanuki. Tanuki are a type of East Asian mammal and are also a type of spirit who most commonly takes the form of that animal.(Other than their form, Tanuki spirits have little in common with the mammal. Information in this encyclopedia entry refers only to the spirits.)
Tanuki are tricky, gluttonous, and greedy but rarely malevolent. (There’s always an exception: Tanuki may be hostile to hunters. There are occasional tales of Tanuki smothering hunters beneath their huge scrotum.) They are sacred clowns who love sexual humor. They amuse themselves and others with their huge scrotum: draping it like a robe, using it as an umbrella, and most famously stretching it out like a drum and beating it. (Take a close look at images of Tanuki beating drums—they may not actually be drums.) Tanuki are shamanic spirits. Allegedly their drumming produces a hypnotic effect.
Tanuki are often classified together with Fox Spirits. They are also skilled shape-shifters but less inclined to possess. Rare cases of Tanuki possession may be treated at Inari shrines or by Inari shamans.
Tanuki Udon is a hearty noodle soup topped with deep-fried tempura batter, delicious but also an excellent hangover remedy (hence the association with Tanukis).
What a Tanuki spirit loves most is going out drinking. Tanukis carouse all night. Even when they run out of money, which they do quickly, they don’t wish to end their good times, so they carry around account books or promissory notes with which to run up bar tabs that they have no intention of ever paying. Magicians, they transform leaves into cash to buy sake. The money transforms back into its true, worthless form as soon as the Tanuki has left the establishment.
Tanuki are highly skilled at finding others to buy their drinks. They latch on to crowds and steer them toward their favorite bars and restaurants. Once completely soused, they persuade someone to take them to a noodle shop to buy them food. Images of Tanuki are kept in bars and restaurants because of the Tanuki’s legendary ability to draw a crowd. The Tanuki may never pay a bill, but he will bring lots of other customers who will.
Tanuki also draw abundance towards individuals. They serve as guardian spirits: in this capacity, their images may be posted at the front door. A Tanuki is a vigilant guardian spirit in Snake Agent, published in 2005, the first in author Liz Williams’ series of Inspector Chen mystery novels.
Restaurateurs; tavern, inn, and bar keepers; noodle shop owners
The Tanuki is its true form, but it can take others as desired. A favorite form is a Buddhist priest. A famous story involves a Tanuki transformed into a tea kettle.
Like Maneki Neko and Nang Kwak, the Tanuki’s benevolent powers are accessed through their images. Tanuki statues are traditionally placed at the entrance of restaurants, bars, and noodle shops to magnetically attract customers. Tanuki statues come in all sizes—from inches tall to the size of a person. Tanuki animals walk on four legs, but Tanuki spirits are always depicted upright. The traditional Tanuki statue has a big conical straw hat and a pot belly. Modern statues are sometimes sanitized and no longer have the huge scrotum or the barely visible itty-bitty penis that characterizes older statues. The scrota are not intended as sexual but as fun and lucky. (The Tanuki is not a fertility spirit.) Tanuki scrota are called golden balls and attract goodluck. A statue without them is less powerful. Statues of female Tanuki exist but are less common. How will you know she’s a girl? Tanuki walk around naked except for their hats. One look at the genitals reveals all.
A rake to sweep up wealth for devotees, an account book for the bar tab, a promissory note that will never be paid, a cup or drinking gourd (some Tanuki statues have actual cups so offerings may be made directly), a staff to lean on when the Tanuki gets loaded
Sake! More sake! Another round! Tanuki Udon or other Japanese noodle dish if you think your Tanuki needs some solid food.
- Fox Spirits
- Maneki Neko
- Nang Kwak
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.
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