The tanuki probably counts as Japan's most misunderstood shapeshifter. To begin with, its animal form is usually called a badger or raccoon, when it is in fact a dog. The real tanuki is a wild species belonging to the dog family that cannot interbreed with domestic dogs, any more than foxes or jackals can. It is rather stupid, mates for life, and is strangely unterritorial. Its range runs from Japan across Asia, and includes parts of Europe.

As it is a tiny little thing the size of a big rabbit, the legends provide two different solutions to the mass problem. Some tanuki shapeshifters changed into giant versions of this rather innocent wild animal. In this form, they could be a threat in a way that would have simply been impossible for a normal-sized tanuki. The other solution was that the size changed but not the weight. Thus, a tanuki could change into a normal woman, but it would have neither the strength nor the weight of a real person.

The tanuki shapeshifter was sometimes limited to just two forms: human and tanuki. Others were master shapeshifters, able to change into an exact copy of any human, as well as other animal forms like the horse, and sometimes even inanimate objects.

Tanuki carvings, like this netsuke, are popular and cute, with the rounded contours of teddy bears. This one is an old antique. Artist and photographer are unknown.
A portion of a nineteenth-century Japanese print illustrating a popular legend about a tanuki shapeshifter who was given his own room in a temple. The artist is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). This illustration is so old its copyright has expired, so it is in the public domain.
A zoo photograph of a real tanuki, a small member of the wild dog family that looks more like a raccoon or badger. Photo copyright holder is not known to the author of this website.
Go to the Library
Find out more about the tanuki shapeshifter by reading pages 129-132 of the book Japanese Ghosts and Demons by Stephen Addiss. Find out more about the real wild dog behind the legends by reading pages 118-122 of the book Foxes, Wolves, and Wild Dogs of the World by David Alderton.

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The text on this page is copyright 2007 by Jamie Hall. Please use proper citation if you are using this website for research.

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