Crystal Morey: Tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dog)

By Crystal Morey
One of the three most famous Henge (shape-shifters) the tanuki is a round jolly little fellow with an enormous scrotum who usually has a sake bottle in hand. He is a Dionysian spirit, devoted to self gratification possessing a head full of tricks to get his hands on rice wine, rich foods and warm ladies. Not malicious in spirit, he’s portrayed as a fun loving character whose exploits backfire as often as they succeed… Undaunted he moves on to the next. For tanuki life is an adventure. Tanuki’s supernatural powers are strong and he’s believed to be more adept at shapeshifting than even the kitsune…

He’s been known to kidnap brides or grooms and tie them up to be discovered later while he impersonates them and partakes of the sumptuous wedding feast. He’ll make people believe leaves or bits of newspaper are monetary notes and buy sake for himself. They’ve been known to transforms themselves into inanimate objects like a teapot, in order to position themselves inside people’s homes.

Close to the larder they then raid during the night. The tanuki’s infamously huge ball sac is totally flexible, extends up to eight tatami mats in size, and can double as a drum, a raincoat, a weapon or a disguise, with or without the use of magic. Tanuki, like the other henge, have a solid sense of honor and always repay a kindness tenfold.

There is a famous story about Tanuki called Bunbuku Chagama which roughly translates to, happiness bubbling over like a tea pot. There was a poor junk peddler named Jimbe whose heart was pure but who could not say no to someone in need and consequently bought more junk than he sold. One day he was coming home from the temple where the priest had been inquiring about a teapot. Jimbe had no teapots for sale however and left the temple without making a sale. Pushing his cart thru a park he came upon a group of boys chasing a smaller girl and pelting her with rocks and sticks. Indignant he ran the boys off and, after making sure the girl was ok, set off home to eat a meager dinner.

While he was waiting for his rice to cool he took stock of the junk in his cart. He was surprised to find a nice old teapot hidden in the back under some bamboo matting. Delighted he set to cleaning to teapot, scrubbing it with sand to make it shine when suddenly it twitched and said, “ouch! too hard”. Jimbe jumped at dropped the teapot who once again said. “ouch!” Jimbe was quite perplexed and the teapot, knowing she was discovered, explained that she was in fact the girl he had rescued in the part.

“You saved me this afternoon,” she explained, “and I want to repay your kindness. Sell me to the priest so you can get some money for a fish for your dinner!”. Jimbe did not like the idea at all but the tanuki insisted so they set off first thing the next morning to the temple. Jimbe made a good sale but was quite miserable having tricked the priest and possible putting the tanuki at risk. The priest set the teapot on the fire to heat water for tea and sat down to wait.

Not long after the pot jumped up spitting hot water and yelling, “too hot! too hot!!”…changing back into her animal form she shot out past the priest straight back to the junkman’s house. The priest followed bellowing about being tricked but Jimbe gladly returned his money apologizing profusely. The tanuki was badly burned and Jimbe sat her down and put a salve on her to help her heal. She was visibly upset, lamenting that she had wanted to help but was making Jimbe’s life worse when he jumped up clapping and exclaimed he had an idea.

If the tanuki could shape into other objects as well as she could turn into a teapot they would open a circus show…he would play his flute and she would perform and they would have money for fish every night. Delighted by this plan, the tanuki agreed and they soon because a very successful pair…performing all over Japan and eating fish every night.

There are MANY different variations to this story, but the main premise is the same. It is one of those stories that has been retold so many times everyone has their own version!

(Crystal Morey works for Gomineko Books and is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. For more info on Gomineko Books please visit their website:

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