Thursday, January 6, 2011

Creature Feature: Tanuki.

Anyone who knows anything about Japanese culture knows the nine-tailed fox. If there are monsters in an anime, there will no doubt be a kyuubi no kitsune waiting somewhere to freak out Westerners with its nine tails. Hell, the fox on Naruto would look freaky with just one tail.

Almost as ubiquitous as the nine-tailed fox are strange, raccoon-like creatures holding bottles of sake. They often have large bellies and...err...'golden balls.' The sake can come and go, but what exactly are the critters? They look sort of like raccoons or evil hedgehogs, but obviously are not. (After all, raccoons are only native to North America.)

Whatever it is, we're scared. Seriously, is that an Ewok?

This statue is based off of a real creature. Raccoon-dogs (or tanuki, Nyctereutes procyonoides) are raccoon-like canids native to Japan, China, and that area in general. They are an invasive species in Western Europe. Despite the resemblance to raccoons, tanuki are only distantly related to them. There are five subspecies, with the most valuable one being N.p. viverrinus - the Japanese tanuki.

Tanuki are among the most omnivorous and primitive of canids. They will eat rodents, beached fish, frogs, and other small animals, but will also climb trees in search of berries. They have long intestines for canids - for those unaware of general trends in digestive tracts, carnivores have short guts, herbivores have long guts. These relatively undifferentiated dogs have more guts than Lassie.

The tanuki is (along with the fox and mujina - an animal whose basis is either the tanuki or introduced civet cat) one of the three main shapeshifters in Japanese mythology. It is often seen as a cute, chubby character with wide eyes, a leaf on its that it turns into money or stuff (like Tom Nook from Animal Crossing), a shade, a bottle of sake, and...wait a second, are those...?

No, you are not seeing things...this IS what it looks like.

Japan just loves to pick on the real tanuki's exaggerated scrotum in their folklore. There are a number of little sayings about the tanuki's endowments, including a children's song about how its balls swing without wind.

I don't know WHAT'S going on here.

How the mythical tanuki uses these structures is totally Japanese: they can stretch their ball sacs to enormous sizes, play them like drums, and swing them over their backs like bags. These strange functions of their "kintama" plus the use of tanuki pelts in metalwork has made them a symbol of financial prosperity. (Note: Sometimes, the balls are snipped in modern sculptures. The tanuki is instead portrayed drumming on its round belly.)

Tanuki pelts are valued worldwide. Not only are they apparently good for blacksmithing, but the Japanese raccoon-dog has particularly silky fur. The other four subspecies are subpar fur mammals at best.

Like many fur-bearing mammals, trading tanuki for fur led to a population explosion in Europe. While this did lead to a good supply of tanuki fur (and several stores being poked by PETA to do genetic testing on every 'faux fur' thing they've got), tanuki carry 32 species of parasitic worms, 6 types of fleas, several sorts of lice and ticks, and, everybody's favorite mammalian virus, rabies. Eurasia has coped fairly well; unlike dogs (which are apex predators) there are quite a few things that eat tanuki for breakfast.

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