The bake danuki (化け狸), better known in the West as the tanuki (タヌキ or 狸) is, in Japanese mythology, one of the yōkai (spirits) of the forest, inspired by the raccoon dog, a species of canine resembling the raccoon and also sometimes confused with the badger, to which the Japanese attribute magical powers.
Master of disguises, it is reputed to be able to change its shape at will. Tanuki are often represented wearing a straw hat and a sake gourd, with a bulging belly that they use as a drum and large testicles, which gave birth to drawings and humorous legends.
These spirits are symbols of luck and prosperity, they are present in Japanese art and tales since the Middle Ages and remain very popular in their country of origin, as shown in the animated film by Isao Takahata, Pompoko. You can see bake danuki in restaurant decorations next to daruma and other folklore creatures.
Tanuki (狸 or タヌキ) is the Japanese term usually used for the raccoon dog. The full name for the mythological tanuki is bake danuki (化け狸), literally: "transforming tanuki".
Tanuki are sometimes confused with other animals. In some local dialects, tanuki and mujina (狢, kyūjitai: 貉) both refer to both raccoon dogs and badgers. Animals known as tanuki in one area may be called mujina in another.
In the modern standard dialect of Tokyo, the word tanuki refers to raccoon dogs and anaguma refers to badgers. The regional dish by the name of tanuki-jiru (狸汁, "tanuki soup") may contain both raccoon dog and badger.
Originally, the kanji for the word tanuki (狸, kyūjitai: 貍) was used to refer to medium-sized mammals. Since wild cats, which were primarily referred to by this term, live only in certain limited areas of Japan (e.g., the Iriomote cat), it is possible that these characters came to refer to the tanuki.
The tanuki is known to be a master of disguise capable of changing shape at will, just like the kitsune (狐, mythological foxes). In some traditions, it is necessary for them to place a leaf on their head in order to transform.
The image of the tanuki is said to have developed during the Edo period. Shigaraki ceramists made tanuki statues in clay, with mythological forms: rice straw hat and sake gourd, large belly and testicles, bipedalism.
One of the particularities of the tanuki in Japanese mythology, and this from the first representations, is to have imposing testicles (raccoon dogs have indeed a very developed scrotum due to the strong competition within the populations).
This inspired many humorous representations. We can see tanuki with their testicles over their shoulder like travelers' bags, using them as umbrellas, fishing nets, means of defense or even using them as drums.
Another characteristic is their belly that they can inflate at their ease and use it, at night, as a drum instead of their testicles, mainly in the most modern versions. The sound produced by this drumming is transcribed by the onomatopoeia ponpoko.
The tanuki is often considered a symbol of good fortune in Japanese tradition, just like the cat or the fox. Its bouncy appearance and large testicles are signs of prosperity and success. Small statues are often found decorating facades as a symbol of good luck.
According to Robin D. Gill, a common explanation for the exaggerated representation of the size of tanuki testicles is that the skin of the testicles was considered the best medium for beating gold leaf, allowing a very small amount of gold to be spread over a large area.
Following a confusion about the stretched size of the tanuki's testicle skin, illustrators would have had fun perpetuating the tradition by inventing uses for such testicles.
The tanuki is depicted on emaki (painted scrolls) from the Middle Ages onward among other yōkai. During the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, some stories used aggressive tanuki. In "Kachi-kachi yama," a story from the Otogizōshi (a collection of stories), a tanuki beats an old woman to death and serves her to her husband in the form of soup instead of the traditional tanuki soup.
The image of the violent tanuki comes mainly from Chinese animist legends.
But generally speaking, in Japan, tanuki are not considered dangerous, but rather mischievous. Other stories tell of tanuki being harmless and full members of the community.
Several of these stories describe shrine priests as tanuki in disguise. Other stories tell of these disguised creatures posing as active and productive members of society. According to some traditions, tanuki in disguise are tsukumogami, or objects that come to life after 100 years.
A Japanese children's song refers to the anatomy of the tanuki. Its melody is the one of the arcade game Ponpoko and is also part of the soundtrack of the Studio Ghibli movie, Pompoko. The original melody is an American Baptist hymn called Shall We Gather at the River?
Tan tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
This can be translated as "the tan-tan-tanuki's family jewels are swaying, and yet there is no wind at all". The refrain continues like this with many variations according to the region.
A folk tale, Bunbuku chagama, tells the story of a tanuki who plays with a monk by turning into a kettle .
Another tale tells of a tanuki trying to fool a hunter by turning its arms into tree branches, until the man gets stuck and falls to the ground. A third story tells of the misadventures of a fox and a tanuki who use transformation tricks to get food from humans.
In other stories, tanuki play various tricks on humans, sometimes paying merchants with leaves temporarily transformed into money.