Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Purged Demon or Just Road-Kill?

It's remarkable how interesting roadkill can be. Not so long ago I mentioned encountering a dead monkey in the road and noticing how people were really going way out of their way to avoid it, most likely for superstitious reasons. Well, this morning, on my way to work, I saw something truly odd. There were two dead tanuki (raccoon dogs) by the side of the road, each in a totally different location.

The Japanese tanuki, or raccoon dog.

You have to understand that tanuki aren't seen very often even when they're alive. They're both shy and very adept at hiding. They are also mainly nocturnal animals. In the sixteen years I've been here in the Land of the Rising Sun I've only seen two of them in the "wild". Now, if I count dead ones, I've just doubled that total in a single morning. That's truly amazing.

The two that I saw looked more like this...only a bit less intact. Incidentally, this image comes from this Japanese website, which is researching the volume of wild animals killed on roads.

The tanuki has always had a special place in Japanese tradition, but not necessarily for good reasons. In ancient Japan they were thought to be not animals but rather shape-changing demons. It was believed that most were good-natured but mischievous while others were quite evil. A very good example of the former can be seen in the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko, in which the tanuki are incorrectly referred to as "raccoons" in the English version. (Incidentally, Pom Poko actually caused a smattering of controversy in the West over the fact that the tanuki not only have very prominently displayed testicles but actually use them as their shape-shifting organ! This is totally in accordance with Japanese folklore, so it was hard to edit out...) As for the truly evil tanuki of legend, they had a habit of playing the role of the proverbial doppelgänger, using their shape-shifting abilities to take the place of people for the purpose of personal gain. However, even the most demonic tanuki were totally at the mercy of their stomachs, so it was usually easy to root them out by tempting them with something yummy or fun.

The family from Pom Poko.

I don't know how much truth there is to any of the old legends, but it would appear tanuki still haven't figured out what roads are and what the things that travel on them can do. Well, at least two didn't last night. Either that, or somebody's wonderful Wile E. Coyote-esque plan went horribly awry...

Here's a traditional image of a tanuki. No, that's not a pillow he's sitting on!


  • Nice post about my distant cousins. Sad that they get hit by cars.

    They really are members of the dog family, even though they have racoon like markings.

    I hope I get to see one someday... Alive.. And with K and Pandabonium to protect me in case it's mean...

    By Blogger Momo the Wonder Dog, at 6:53 PM  

  • How true about their shyness... in my 19 years here, I have never seen a tanuki, not even in the zoo (becos I don't go there)...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 4:40 PM  

  • I've never heard of such an animal?!?

    Looks alot like a North American martin.

    By Blogger Chris in MB, at 10:44 PM  

  • Momo
    Three woofs and a wag (but no tail....just imagine)!

    I've seen a couple of tanuki that were very much alive. In both cases it just suddenly popped out from behind some trees or bushes, sniffed around a bit, and then disappeared. Once I was in a parking lot in Mito. The other time it was a park.

    I guess I've just been lucky! Those last two tanuki weren't, however...

    We actually have martens in Japan, too, mainly in the more northern parts of the country. We also have weasels. I see those a lot more often. It's wild to see a weasel suddenly run across the road up ahead of me as I'm on my way to work. Their bodies are so long and narrow!

    Tanuki/raccoon dogs are actually of the dog family, as Momo said. In many ways they seem like a cross or midway point between a fox and a bear, and their behavior shows elements of both.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:14 PM  

  • think that a thing that looks like a raccoon is related to canines...!

    It ought not have the word raccoon in its name, ought it? But it really really looks like one!

    I just looked up raccoons and tanuki for more of a comparison, and indeed - tanuki are in the Family Canidae, and raccoons in the Family Procyonidae. Two classifications on, though the species is N. Procyonoides. Notice the -oid, meaning "like".

    Also, I saw more pics and they do sometimes look dog-like.

    OK, my scientific mind is sort of at rest now and I can move on.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 6:32 AM  

  • if that isn't a pillow, then what is it??? don't tell me that it's what i think it is!! ;)

    these are beautiful little animals. are they mean?

    By Blogger tooners, at 6:23 PM  

  • That is so sad. Over here, a lot of animals get run over, even buffaloes get hit by moving trains at night.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 6:02 PM  

  • hmmm.. can I say cute? but being flatenned is not cute...

    By Blogger Robin, at 7:44 PM  

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