Tanuki the Tipsy Trickster: Why a Well-Endowed Raccoon Dog Is Big in Japan

The signs and symbols of Japan can be disorientating, as Western signage such as the striped barber’s pole and the green/red man of traffic lights is blended with more traditional symbols, such as the hanging drapes that indicate onsen (traditional baths), the red-caped kitsune (fox-gods), and jizo (statues of dead children, dressed to stay warm against the cold of the grave.)

One of the more curious symbols is the tanuki, a raccoon dog that represents a traditional Japanese prankster god. The tanuki is known in the West best from Super Mario Brothers 3, which features a tanuki suit that allows Mario to change form into a statue and to fly, as well as from the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko, which is about a gang of tanuki (although in the English language version of the film they were misrepresented as badgers.)

The tanuki has a mixed reputation in Japan. Statues of the full-bellied (and large-testicled) tanuki can be found throughout Japan, even if pollution and urban sprawl have taken their toll on the actual animal after which the trickstertakes its name and form. The tanuki is a shape-shifter, and his testicles play an important role in his shifting. Tanukis have legendarily been known to use their testicles as makeshift raincoats, as weapons, and as drums. They knead and massage them into the shape they desire, and often impersonate humans to buy alcohol and delicacies, which is where the tanuki fits into modern Japanese culture. 

Keep reading about the tanuki on Atlas Obscura!