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When driving in Japan, be careful of tanuki: mystic animals of Japan

2 Dec

tanuki photo by MonanekoThe other day I was walking along a quiet coastal street in a small town of Aomori.  It was around 8 in the evening, and the street was dark.  Suddenly something crossed the street and appeared right in front of me.   At first I thought it was a large cat, but its round face with a light brown fur above the eyes suggested otherwise.  It was tanuki.

He (or she) was chubby with lots of fur.  After staring at me for a while, he took a few steps towards me.  I tried to hide my excitement so as not to scare him, but soon he changed his mind and headed into the forest.

tanuki by Iwanafish (400x600)

tanuki photo by 663highland (640x426) tanuki photo 2 by 663highland (640x426) Tanuki look like the  North American raccoon and are often referred to as “Japanese raccoon dogs,” but they are not closely related.  Also, they’re only distantly related to dogs, even though their paw prints look similar.  Tanuki live in the mountains and the forest and are often found near water.  Native to East Asian countries, they’re very common in Japan.

Here are some interesting facts about tanuki:

  • They’re the only members of the canid family to go into torpor during winter: Torpor is a stage of inactivity. The body temperature drops, allowing them to save energy.
  • They’re nocturnal animals.
  • They live either by themselves or with their mates.
  • They mate for life.
  • Their life expectancy is about 10 years.
  • They eat small animals, such as mouse, frogs, birds, fish, and insects as well as fruits and plants.
  • They can climb trees and eat fruits such as persimmons.
  • They are two types of tanuki in Japan – ones that live in Hokkaido called “ezotanuki” and the others that live in the rest of the country called “hondotanuki.

Perhaps one of the most important things to know about tanuki is that they get scared very easily.  So they become frozen with car headlights and often get run over by cars.  Among the animals that get killed in highways in Japan, one in four of them are tanuki.

In recent years tanuki have lost their habitats, forcing them to live near the cities.  My friends in central Tokyo tell me that they see tanuki in their neighborhood these days, which was unheard of when I was a child.  No wonder why there has been an increase in their fatalities on the roads.

Some locals have installed animal tunnels through which tanuki can cross the roads safely.  Others have placed the road sign (shown above) in the areas where many tanuki live.   Despite these efforts they continue to get hit by cars.

Tanuki & Moon by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎)

Tanuki & Moon by Katsushika Hokusai

Tanuki by Tsuchiya Koitsu (土屋光逸)

Tanuki by Tsuchiya Koitsu (土屋光逸)

Toriyama Sekien Tanuki (400x531)

Toriyama Sekien Tanuki (鳥山石燕)

Tanuki by Sekine Untei (関根 雲停)

Tanuki by Sekine Untei (関根 雲停)

Tanuki are more than wild animals to Japanese.  They’re important characters  in folklore and art in which they are often portrayed as mystic animals.  Both tanuki and kitsune (foxes) are thought to have the ability to cast illusions.

There are many folklore associated with tanuki.  One of them is called bunbuku chagama (分福茶釜 or 文福茶釜), sometimes referred to as “The Magic Tea Kettle.”  The story goes like this:

A poor man finds a tanuki caught in a trap.  He feels sorry for the animal and sets it free.

That night, the tanuki comes to the poor man’s house to thank him for his kindness. Then the tanuki transforms itself into a chagama (tea kettle) and tells the man to sell him for money.

The man sells the tanuki-teapot to a monk, who takes it home.  After scrubbing it harshly, he sets it over the fire to boil water. Unable to stand the heat, the tanuki teapot sprouts legs and, in its half-transformed state, makes a run for it.

The tanuki returns to the poor man with another idea. The man would set up a circus-like roadside attraction and charge admission for people to see a teapot walking a tightrope. The plan works, and each gains something good from the other—the man is no longer poor and the tanuki has a new friend and home.

Helping animals and being helped by them in return is a common theme in Japanese folklore.  Perhaps there is one thing we can do to help tanuki today – avoid hitting them on the road.


Tanuki (

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