What the Heck Is a Tanuki? 8 Things You Didn't Know About Raccoon Dogs

5 wild facts about tanukis

Treehugger / Alex Dos Diaz

Native to East Asia, raccoon dogs (also known as a "tanuki") are frequently misunderstood animals that serve as a major cultural icon in Japan.

Intrigued by their bushy fur, soft eyes and gentle disposition? We've put together a crash course that will get you up to speed on everything you need to know about these adorable creatures.

1. They are not related to raccoons

A pair of tanuki
Raccoon dogs are more closely related to wolves and foxes than to the masked animal with which they share a name. feathercollector/Shutterstock

Despite their masked appearance, raccoon dogs are not closely related to raccoons. Rather, they belong to the Canidae family, alongside wolves and foxes.

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is also a basal species, which means it most resembles the ancestral form of the Canidae family. So, if you're wondering what your Fido looked like several million years ago, look no further than the raccoon dog!

In fact, when several pet raccoon dogs escaped into the English countryside, it raised questions about where these creatures fit in the family tree. (It's also a good excuse to remind everyone that wild animals don't make good pets.)

2. That faux fur you're wearing? It might be raccoon dog fur

A caged tanuki
The Humane Society called out 20 U.S. retailers for using raccoon dog fur and labeling it faux fur. AD-LA/Wikimedia

In 2008, the Humane Society of the United States filed a false advertising claim against at least 20 U.S. retailers after finding that 70 percent of faux fur garments they analyzed contained raccoon dog fur.

That's not the only case. There have been multiple incidents in which clothing retailers advertised and sold merchandise containing raccoon dog fur (also known as murmansky) but falsely labeled as faux fur.

Raccoon dogs are not considered endangered at the moment, but according to Zoo Atlanta — one of only two zoos in the U.S. that exhibit the animals — "they are an example of a species that could come under threat in the future due to unsustainable activities," such as the fur trade.

3. They take their social relationships very seriously

A pack of tanukis
Tanuki live in pairs or small groups. Zanna Holstova/Shutterstock

Companionship and family is important for these critters, so they usually live in monogamous pairs or in small, close-knit groups.

Male raccoon dogs, in particular, have an exceptional reputation for being both compassionate partners and fathers. They've been observed bringing food to their pregnant mates, and after their partner gives birth, they take an active, important role in the parenting of pups.

4. Raccoon dogs are the only canines that hibernate in winter

A tanuki in winter snow
Raccoon dogs are communal hibernators that prefer to cuddle up with a partner while they sleep. Stanislav Duben /Shutterstock

While wolves, foxes and other canines have no trouble braving the snowy, barren winter months, raccoon dogs living in far north ranges prefer to hunker down. To do this, they pack on fat, decrease their metabolism by 25 percent and settle inside their burrows until warmer weather arrives.

What's especially remarkable about their hibernation habits is that they don't go it alone. Another testimonial to how important social relationships are to these creatures: raccoon dogs are communal hibernators that prefer to cuddle up to their partners when they slumber.

5. Raccoon dogs have a long, storied history in Japanese folklore

A taxidermied raccoon dog
Tanuki are found throughout Japanese folklore as mystical spirits called Bake-danuki. Namazu-tron/Wikimedia

The subspecies of raccoon dog native to Japan is known as the tanuki. In addition to being a real animal, tanuki are also found throughout Japanese folklore as mystical, shape-shifting spirits called Bake-danuki.

Bake-danuki, which literally means "monster raccoon dog," belong to a class of Japanese spirit monsters called the yōkai. While most yōkai have a tendency for outright malevolence, the bake-danuki has shed this frightening reputation over the past few centuries in favor of a more harmless, jovial lifestyle focused on bestowing humans with good fortune and prosperity.

Today, the furry, fun-loving scamp is depicted with a bulbous belly, a massive scrotum and a host of goofy facial expressions. The items he carries may vary, but it's most common to see him clutching a sake flask and a promissory note of unpaid bills.

6. Yes, there's more to that part of the story

A woodblock print of a group of tanuki with large scrotum, created by Yoshitoshi in 1881.
An 1881 Yoshitoshi woodblock print of a group of tanuki with large scrotums. Wikimedia

Believe it or not, the mythical tanuki's exaggerated scrotum has nothing to do with male virility or sexual over-indulgence.

The origin of this defining characteristic dates back to 19th century, when metal workers wrapped gold in tanuki skin before hammering it into gold leaf. The strength of the tanuki's skin was so great that, according to legend, a tiny piece of gold could be hammered thin enough to stretch across eight tatami mats.

Because the Japanese terms for a small ball of gold ("kin no tama") and testicles ("kintama") are so phonetically similar, the image of a tanuki with a gigantic testicular region is now associated with good fortune and stretching one's money.

7. Bake-danuki statues are essential for any Japanese restaurant or bar

Tanuki statues or Bake-danuki in Japan
Bake-danuki, or tanuki statues, are often placed at entrances of restaurants to beckon paying customers but can also be see at the entrance of shrines, like this one. Jesper Rautell Balle/Wikimedia Commons

Bake-danuki represent prosperity and economic growth, so it's no surprise that Japanese businesses would want to harness that good luck.

Much like the famous Maneki-neko (commonly known to Westerners as the Japanese lucky cat), bake-danuki statues are placed at the entrances of restaurants and bars to beckon visitors. The approximate meaning of these wealth-bringing statues translates to "come in, don't be stingy."

8. Tanuki were the subject of a popular animated children's film

A screencap from Studio Ghibli's 'Pom Poko'
A scene from the 1994 animated film 'Pom Poko.'. 'Pom Poko' screencap

A scene from the 1994 animated film 'Pom Poko.' (Image: 'Pom Poko' screencap)

In Studio Ghibli's famous 1994 animated film "Pom Poko," a community of fun-loving, shape-shifting tanuki unite to stop human developers from razing the forest where they live.

The tanuki use industrial sabotage, magical illusions, acts of eco-terrorism and, of course, their comically large scrotums to fight back against the destruction of their habitat.

When the time came to release an English version of this classic environmental children's film, directors made several changes to cater to a more Western audience, including calling the animals "raccoons" instead of "raccoon dogs" or "tanuki." Additionally, while the overt scrotal cameos are not considered scandalous in Japanese culture, producers of the English dub version made a decision to refer to them as "pouches" instead.