On the trail of Japan's odd woodland dog with no bark

By Mark Brazil | May 20, 2004


The first Ezo-tanuki (Hokkaido raccoon-dog) I ever found was a long-dead carcass along a woodland trail I used to frequent near Nemuro.

After that I saw the remains of several more road kills, but the prospect of encountering a live specimen in the wild was something I had long anticipated with relish.

Tanuki are found throughout Japan’s main islands. In ceramic form they are particularly widespread, appearing outside drinking establishments in villages, towns and cities from one end of the country to the other. These tanuki are depicted as upright creatures with swollen, drumlike stomachs and outstanding scrotal endowment.

Folklore would have us believe that the jolly, carousing tanuki drums on his rotund belly and sings to the moon to attract the ladies, with whom he then enthusiastically exercises his endowment. Typically, the womanizing, hard-drinking tanuki sports a straw hat, a sake bottle and a notebook, for they are jovial fellows believed to bring good fortune to drinking establishments. For all that he drinks, however, he never has sufficient cash on him for payment, hence the notebook in which he writes down his dues.

Atypical canids

In reality, the wild creature is as nocturnal as the mythical one, but differs in almost all other characteristics. After all, the tanuki of legend is also reputedly capable of shape-shifting, as is Japan’s mythical fox.

Ezo-tanuki are actually rather stout-bodied, short-legged creatures that are atypical members of the dog family. They sport a distinctive facial mask. Beware, though, the mistakes that are often made, for “tanuki” is commonly mistranslated as “badger” (an altogether different species); while its English name, “raccoon dog,” is the term employed in North America for the dogs used to hunt raccoons (a different species too).

Though doglike, tanuki are different from other canids in that they frequent heavily wooded areas rather than open areas, and they are more omnivorous — taking a wide range of small prey and considerable plant material. Coastal tanuki will scavenge the tideline, and all will take amphibians, reptiles and birds, as well as gorging on nuts, fruits and berries. I wonder whether the association between tanuki and inebriation isn’t founded on the sight of some tipsy tanuki drunk on over-fermented late-autumn fruit.

There is little doubt that the tanuki’s habit of living on the fringes of human habitation, where it can benefit both from the fruits of the forest and the fruits of farmland, has led it into encounters with people ever since the latter first settled these islands. The animal’s crepuscular and nocturnal habits place it on the edge of sight, so perhaps it is little wonder that tanuki have become the stuff of myth and folklore, performing sophisticated metamorphosing magic, as well as impish tricks and japes at the expense of the local human inhabitants — especially when the reward for their efforts is food!

I first encountered a real tanuki one night while I was lost in the mountains southwest of Tokyo. Later, I was introduced in more civilized fashion, over dinner, to tanuki that were attracted to a loyal reader’s garden. Subsequently I have bumped into them only occasionally, most memorably very early one morning when I was squeaking to attract birds in the Hakone area of Kanagawa Prefecture. After an unruly rustling in the dwarf bamboo, a bemused tanuki popped out onto the trail nearby; I don’t know who was more astonished, it or the birdwatchers I was guiding at the time. After all, it had appeared as if by magic.

Tanuki are also un-doglike in various respects other than their diet and living habits. They are, for example, barkless and reputedly silent, and they come as close to hibernating as any canid can. They retreat to their burrows from November until about April after putting on weight in autumn. However, they emerge more readily during warm spells of weather, and so do not hibernate in the true sense, at least in the south. I wonder whether they may perhaps hibernate properly in Hokkaido where spring often does not arrive until May. After all, there is little for them to eat above ground given all the snow up here.

Less than elated

The Ezo-tanuki is a paler subspecies of the tanuki found elsewhere in Japan, and though I had long looked forward to seeing one alive, when I did it was with far less than elation.

I had expected to bump into one on a forest trail at dusk or dawn, but instead I came upon one bumbling across a country road in bright sunlight.

This winter has been long and hard in eastern Hokkaido, with heavier snows, some say, than for 30 years (one person even told me that it was more than for a century). Even during Golden Week the snow lay heavily draped across the forested flanks of many a mountain, and the evidence of deer having a hard time foraging was to be found in the torn bark of many trees. I wondered about the smaller forest creatures.

Timing the end of winter sleep for hibernating animals is critical. Emerge too early and the land may still be in the grip of winter and food in short supply. Emerge too late and earlier-comers may have snaffled the best territories and mates. But with warm springs and cold winters arriving with less predictability than in the past, timing must be even more difficult now.

Of course there comes a point when an animal must become active again. The food stores it laid down before winter, either stored in a burrow or as body fat, will become depleted; eventually they must emerge to forage, come what may. When I spotted this tanuki slowly making its way onto the grass verge, I knew that there was something very wrong with it. I thought that perhaps hunger had driven it out in the daytime, but when I approached closer it seemed that sickness rather than hunger had overwhelmed it.

In areas of Honshu where tanuki live in high densities, they frequently succumb to skin deterioration and hair loss brought on by a parasitic mite — a condition called sarcoptic mange. Infested animals commonly die from hypothermia during winter. But this animal had a full coat and so was not infected.

No, this one was suffering from the scourge of the summer woods — ticks. Deer are common in mountain forests here, and deer ticks even more so. Mountain hikers can strip and then shed any ticks they have inadvertently collected at a hike’s end, but the forest-dwelling tanuki must somehow groom them out, and this one had failed to do so. Some ticks here apparently carry heart-damaging Lyme disease, but whether tanuki suffer the effects I don’t know. So whether the creature I saw was in a weakened state because of the ticks, or whether it was susceptible to ticks because it was already in a weakened state, I shall never know. It was, though, a long way from the image of a tanuki as a boisterous carousing character, and a far cry from the exciting encounter I had imagined with Ezo-tanuki.

Now, though, I do know that tanuki are not entirely silent, for this one, at death’s door, was crying a dirge.