text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
In the decades I’ve been involved with Japan (and especially before I started travelling here) I have collected references and bits of information from any source imaginable; the case with the tanuki is telling since the first time I read extensively about it was in 2003, when my favorite American writer, Tom Robbins (who, incidentally has no particular connection with Japan) published “Villa Incognito” a novel in which the tanuki is not just mentioned but plays the main role. In “Villa”, Robbins weaves a myth entangling America, Japan, Laos, the Vietnam War, drugs as medicine and the challenging of values of both Western and Eastern societies. And the center of his myth is the raccoon-dog that zoology has classified as “Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus” and the Japanese know as “tanuki” (狸).
The reason Robbins used the tanuki in his book is, I assume, because he found exciting the way it is portrayed in countless Japanese folk tales: like the fox/kitsune the tanuki is considered a supernatural animal. There is little doubt that this comes from them being nocturnal animals (creatures of the night have been enshrouded with a cloak of magic since the dawn of time) as well as from the fact that they can be seen everywhere –I have personally seen tanuki wandering in home yards and gardens in suburbs of Kanagawa, only a few miles outside Tokyo. As early as the 8th century and the classic book “Nihon Shoki” people have been referring to “bake-danuki” (化け狸), the tanuki that changes shapes and forms and that can even possess humans; contrary to the fox, however, the motive for its actions is not evil but fun.
A playful and merry night-walker and prankster with a huge thirst for sake and an enormous scrotum symbolizing good fortune, the tanuki is a deity that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ancient Greeks’ Pan; and like Pan, the Japanese loved it enough for restaurant and izakaya owners to make it a symbol of hospitality and good food and drink and local fire departments to make it a mascot for protection against forest fires, that great threat deeply rooted in the nation’s subconscious. And even though the form it is usually depicted in the statues in front of restaurants and fire stations is not very old (it was introduced in the early years of Showa emperor, in the 1930s) it is one more bridge with the past and one more hint that no matter how much the country has been modernized, a part of it remains deeply pagan.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.