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What is so special about tanuki?

Tanuki, or Japanese Raccoon Dog, can often be seen in Japan. He stares at you in the streets or on temple grounds, smiling proudly and showing off his big belly. Since my first encounter it has puzzled me why tanuki is so popular here. It turns out that this animal is an important part of Japanese culture, deeply entwined with the collective consciousness of the Japanese.

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The Raccoon dog is actually not a close relative of the raccoon. As you can see, the name is as mischievous as its bearer. Raccoon dogs are monogamous animals and usually live in pairs or small groups. They are the only dogs that hibernate in winter.

Typical mischievous tanuki can be seen in a nostalgic, quaint animated movie “Pom Poko” by Studio Ghibli. It is rather long (almost 2 hours) but it has a lot of pleasant moments that everyone who is at least a little interested in Japanese culture will enjoy. If I was born and raised in Japan, I would have understood it more I’m sure.

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Unlike foxes (kitsune), tanuki try to stay away from humans. Nevertheless, both species are believed to use anthropomorphic forms to play tricks on us.

The mystical Japanese Raccoon dog is called Bake-danuki, or ghost tanuki. It is a spirit monster. Each part of Japan has its own stories about bake-danuki, but generally they bring good luck and fortune. Among their most popular “accessories” is a hat (to protect against bad weather) and a bottle of sake (it may be strange, but it represents virtue!).

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Bake-danuki represents prosperity so placing his statue in front of a shop or bar supposedly guarantees that customers will be generous.

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Article by Olga Kaneda

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