A raccoon dog at the Chapultpec Zoo in Mexico City
Photo: Alfredo Estrella (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: Japanese raccoon dog

What it’s about: Only the cutest damn thing in the Eastern hemisphere! Raccoon dogs are a breed of canid with raccoon-like snouts and black circles around the eyes, which make them resemble the American trash panda for whom they’re named. They are indigenous to East Asia, and since being introduced in Eastern Europe, have thrived to the point of being considered an invasive species. The Japanese variety, also called tanuki, have long been a staple of culture from ancient yōkai tales to the Super Mario series.

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Biggest controversy: In Japanese folklore, the tanuki is a mischievous spirit that uses disguises and even shape-shifting to play tricks on mere mortals. So it’s only appropriate that, for many years, raccoon dogs had different names in different regions of Japan, and often names that referred to some other animal in a different part of the country. As a result of this confusion, “tanuki” was often translated into English as “raccoon” or “badger,” and “a shape-shifting trickster badger” doesn’t really have the same punch.

Strangest fact: As commonplace as the animals are, at one point all tanuki were considered divine beings that controlled all of nature. The Nihon Shoki (or, The Chronicles Of Japan), one of Japan’s earliest surviving histories, written around 720 AD, speaks of them arriving in the spring, turning into humans, and singing songs. But when Buddhism reached Japan, most animals were no longer considered divine. Yet tanuki were still seen as having special powers, and were reclassified as yōkai. While some yōkai are fearsome, because ordinary tanuki aren’t threatening, as yōkai they’re considered tricksters, out to make humans look foolish, not necessarily to harm or steal from them.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Tanuki have made an impact in pop culture. The most famous tanuki might in fact be an Italian plumber, as a tanuki-costume power-up has featured in several Mario games, starting with 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 3. The suit allows Mario to fly, attack with his tail, and shape-shift into a statue. In some games, Mario gains tanuki powers by finding a Super Leaf—mythological tanuki use leaves to shape-shift. The tanuki powers are surprisingly faithful to Japanese folklore, given this is a series about a plumber who eats magic mushrooms while fighting alongside different magic mushrooms.

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Tanuki were also the stars of Studio Ghibli’s 1994 feature Pom Poko (named for the sound the animals make), about a group of the animals trying to protect their home from developers. Ghibli, famous for making delightful children’s movies, still made sure to give their tanuki characters prominent testicles. These are referred to as “raccoon pouches” in the American dub, and the animals are misidentified as raccoons (which don’t have pouches, but as far as questionable dubbing choices go, it’s still not in the realm of “meeting a stranger in the alps” from The Big Lebowski).

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Much like AC/DC, the tanuki’s big balls have been wildly over-reported, often exaggerated well out of proportion in folkloric art. This may be the result of an odd connection—at one time in Japan, gold leaf was made hammering the metal under tanuki pelts. As it happens, the words for “gold nugget” and “testicle” sound alike, so tanuki are associated with wealth, and having large, well, nuggets. In more modern depictions, it’s often the tanuki’s belly that’s exaggerated instead of its testes. However, there’s a schoolyard chant that survives to this day, which translates to, “Tan-tan-tanuki’s bollocks / Even without wind / They swing, swing!”

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Japanese mythology permeates that country’s popular culture, and occasionally America’s as well. Wikipedia has a long list of mythological references in everything from manga, to film, to video games, to Pokémon to The Venture Bros. Pokémon in particular is well-represented, as its collection of creatures with special powers seems pretty directly influenced by yōkai, animal spirits with special powers.

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Further down the Wormhole: Shape-shifting is hardly limited to tanuki. From the Greek gods to Sirius Black to Odo, the idea of a creature transforming into human form or vice versa is an irresistible one. But shape-shifting takes an uncomfortable turn in tales of a “monstrous bride” or groom. In such tales, someone is fated or compelled to marry someone who’s been transformed; usually the act of marriage undoes the transformation. (Side note: In Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain marries the hideous Loathly Lady, and their wedding lifts the curse halfway. He must choose whether she’ll be beautiful by day and ugly by night or the other way around, but when he asks her to choose instead, the curse is lifted. In case you were wondering where the plot of Shrek came from.) But while marrying the undead is the stuff of fables and B-movies, marrying the dead is a real (if rare) practice with a long history in some parts of the world. Next week we’ll celebrate Wiki Wormhole’s fifth anniversary by looking at a new spin on till death do us part.