The Tanuki, at the Heart of Japanese Folklore


WordsSolenn Cordroc'h

A treasure hunt to find the spirits of Japanese nature: this is at the center of the Uramado project, created in augmented reality by Thomas Pons and graphic designer Julie Stephen Chheng, presented in the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris in 2017. Drawing on the popular icons of supernatural creatures known as Yokai in Japan, Uramado combines traditional Japanese folklore with new technology to create animals in augmented reality.

Out of all these mythological figures, the tanuki takes prominence. Originating from China, the legend of the tanuki appeared in Japan between the 4th and 7th centuries. Portrayed as a raccoon with a rounded stomach, the tanuki is initially perceived as a creature that’s far from kindly when it takes on the appearance of a human and has no qualms about lying, stealing and even killing. In the tale of Bunbuku Chagama, a woodcutter saves a tanuki’s life and the latter helps him to become rich by way of thanks.

During the Edo period, the tanuki became so popular that it was often depicted in prints with a touch of humour, often wearing a straw hat and holding a flask of sake. Its most notable characteristic, however, is its very large scrotum, which touches the ground. It often uses its generously-sized stomach as a drum, the distinctive ‘pompoko pon pon’ sound of which was even used as the title for an animated film created by Studio Ghibli, Pompoko. The scrotum is also shown to double as a weapon, umbrella or fishing net. Beyond its physical attributes, this mischievous animal is also known for its insatiable appetite for sake and food. It isn’t uncommon to see effigies of the tanuki outside restaurants and other businesses in Japan, because the creature is synonymous with prosperity and good fortune.