Transformative magical creatures are a cornerstone of folklore across diverse cultures globally, and Japan boasts its own rich tapestry of such beings. Among the most iconic and revered yokai, the kitsune and the tanuki hold sway over the imagination, weaving tales of mischief and marvel in Japanese folklore.

The name for Japanese foxes is either Ezo red fox or kitakitsune. The latter identifies foxes living in Hokkaido.

The Kitsune

From the legends of Native America to the lore of Western Europe, foxes have carved a niche as wily tricksters, enigmatic and cunning. In the realm of Japanese belief, the kitsune holds a mystical allure, its tail said to divide with time, each segment symbolizing age, wisdom, and power. A kitsune may possess up to nine tails, with a new appendage sprouting every century (or every millenium, according to a different belief). These creatures wield an array of supernatural gifts, from possession and illusion-casting to the knowledge of esoteric arts and the ability to breathe spectral flames.

Chief Ability is Shapeshifting

Throughout classical and contemporary portrayals, kitsune are depicted assuming various forms for diverse purposes, often employing guises of captivating maidens. Tales abound of female kitsune entering unwitting unions with human men, assuming roles of devoted spouses and nurturing mothers. Offspring of such unions inherit potent divinatory talents.

However, a kitsune caught off guard may inadvertently reveal its true nature, displaying fox-like features such as tails or ears. Despite their penchant for pranks, kitsune defy simple categorization as malevolent beings; their dispositions range from benevolent to mischievous. Notably, certain kitsune are believed to serve Inari, the Shinto deity of agriculture and fertility, acting as messengers and guardians at shrines like the famed Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Conversely, some kitsune harbor malevolent intentions, tormenting hapless farmers or monks, even resorting to possession to manipulate their victims.

Tanuki is a species of canid endemic to Japan, making it difficult to find a translation to appease non-Japanese speakers.

The Tanuki

While commonly associated with the Japanese raccoon dog in modern parlance, regional variations have depicted the tanuki as a badger, civet, or even a wild cat in ancient texts. Despite superficial similarities and misconceptions, it’s vital to clarify that the tanuki is distinctly different from what English speakers recognize as a raccoon.

Jolly Prankster

Tanuki are renowned for their jovial and mischievous nature, often linked with good fortune. They revel in festivities, indulging in sake and orchestrating pranks on fellow tanuki and unsuspecting humans alike, all in the spirit of merriment (though historical accounts recount more sinister tales, contemporary depictions have softened their image into whimsical creatures).

Masters of metamorphosis, tanuki employ a leaf on their forehead to assume different forms, a motif frequently depicted in Japanese art. Notably, they have a penchant for masquerading as humans to procure alcohol, using magically transformed leaves as counterfeit currency, leaving bewildered merchants in their wake. In human guise, tanuki often retain telltale dark rings around their eyes, hinting at their true raccoon dog identity.

Depictions of tanuki in their natural form typically showcase eight defining traits, known as the Tanuki Eight Virtues: a cheerful countenance, a sake flask, a straw hat (symbolizing protection from adversity), a ledger of promises (representing reliability), keen eyesight, a robust tail (emblematic of strength and stability), a protruding belly (allegedly drummed upon during nocturnal revelry), and an exaggerated scrotum.

Kintama

No discourse on the tanuki would be complete without addressing their most conspicuous anatomical feature: their ludicrously enlarged testicles (kintama or balls of gold). While real raccoon dogs possess sizeable scrota, classical and contemporary depictions exaggerate this trait for comedic effect. Tanuki are often portrayed in media manipulating their testicles for various purposes, from practicality to amusement, even inspiring a popular children’s song about their sway in the wind on calm days. Understandably, this facet complicates efforts at localization beyond Japan. Intriguingly, the tanuki’s exaggerated testicles symbolize auspicious financial fortune (hence the gold nugget association), unrelated to matters of sexuality.

Kitsune vs. Tanuki

As enigmatic shapeshifters steeped in Japanese folklore, the kitsune and the tanuki share a realm of mischief and magic, often intertwined in cultural narratives. In fact, the kanji for kitsune (狐) and tanuki (狸) combine to form 狐狸 (kori), symbolizing a sly person. Inserting the kanji for dog (狗) between them creates kokkuri (狐狗狸), a Japanese divination game akin to Ouija boards. Despite their commonalities, the kitsune and tanuki are frequently juxtaposed, each embodying distinct traits.

Legend holds that while the kitsune wields greater magical prowess, the tanuki excels in transformations. A popular adage suggests that while the fox boasts seven disguises, the tanuki masters eight. The kitsune is often depicted as refined and elegant, albeit occasionally aloof, while the tanuki exudes a jovial, convivial spirit, albeit sometimes untidy. Describing someone as “tanuki-faced” evokes a comical, rounded visage, while “kitsune-faced” implies an alluring, triangular countenance. Even in culinary realms, distinctions emerge: tanuki udon features tempura flakes, while kitsune udon highlights fried tofu.

Danzaburo Danuki lends money to human merchants in the painting Danzaburo Danuki of Sado Province (Kawanabe Kyōsai).

Danzaburo Danuki

There’s no shortage of kitsune vs tanuki clashes in Japanese lore, epitomized by tales like that of Danzaburo Danuki.

The Battle of Kori no Tatakai stands as one of the most renowned conflicts in Japanese folklore, pitting Danzaburo Danuki and his tanuki brethren against invading kitsune forces on Sado Island. Danzaburo Danuki, a legendary figure possibly rooted in history, purportedly dwelled on Sado Island during the 1650s. Initially known as Danzaburo, a human merchant dealing in meats and pelts, he purportedly introduced tanuki cubs to the island, ostensibly to control vermin populations. However, as legends burgeoned, whispers circulated that Danzaburo was no ordinary mortal but a formidable bakedanuki, orchestrating the migration of his tanuki clan to establish a haven, shielding them from the scourge of foxes and dogs.

The tales of Danzaburo Danuki on Sado Island weave a tapestry of folklore, elevating him to the status of a folk hero. Kyokutei Baki’s Enseki Zasshi immortalizes Danzaburo’s exploits, recounting his retrieval of lost treasures from hidden valleys and war-ravaged homesteads, which he then loaned to impoverished island fishermen. This benevolent act diverges from the typical tanuki archetype of illusion and deceit; Danzaburo’s loans were backed by genuine gold, devoid of the ephemeral transformation into leaves often associated with tanuki lore. Yet, his altruism had limits; when fishermen defaulted on their repayments, Danzaburo ceased his lending practices.

However, Danzaburo Danuki’s most celebrated sagas revolve around his valiant defense of Sado Island against kitsune incursions. These epic confrontations epitomize his indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment to safeguarding his tanuki kin from external threats, cementing his legacy as a guardian and protector in Japanese folklore.

With the cunning fox and the mischievous raccoon dog, traversing the enchanting landscapes of Japan demands keen discernment and an appreciation for the magical tapestry of its folklore.