When I first came to Japan in the early 1960s I was fascinated by stories about tanuki, which were then called "raccoon dogs" in English because of their slight similarity to the North American raccoons, although they are not related. When I was young there were no tanuki in Britain, although since then many were brought in as pets. Tanuki are wild animals, and many would-be British pet owners found that they could not handle them and illegally released them into the wild.
Tanuki are indigenous to East Asia, but between 1928 and 1958 thousands of them were released into the Soviet Union to be hunted for their fur. They have now spread to northern Europe, France, Germany and Italy where they are considered to be an invasive pest.
As a boy in Britain I loved to watch badgers, den burrowing animals, which in Japanese sometimes share a name with the tanuki, "mujina," although they are totally different species. However, even though they are lots of badger stories, especially for children, they did not have the magical shape-changing powers of the Japanese tanuki.
The first book I ever published in Japan, in 1970, was titled "Tanuki." It was a bilingual book for children, published by Labo Teaching Information Center and illustrated by Kajiyama Toshio. The book came with tapes in both English and Japanese. Believe it or not this little book, with four stories set in Japan, Britain, Africa and arctic Canada, is still in print almost half a century later.
Tanuki are canines, and here where I live in northern Nagano they are very common. When snow is on the ground you can see their tracks all over, even though tanuki supposedly hibernate in their dens during cold, snowy winters. They have a very omnivorous diet, varying by season, region and individual habits. Tanuki have the rather curious and distinctive trait of using the same place or places to deposit their droppings, so once you find a tanuki toilet it is relative easy to discover what they have been eating by examining the accumulated remains of bones, teeth, insect carapaces and legs, hair, seeds and so on. One of the most famous and diligent tanuki researchers is Emperor Akihito, who for years has studied the diet of long-time resident tanuki in the Imperial Palace Grounds, right in the heart of Tokyo. His Majesty has written several scientific papers on the subject (of which I have very treasured copies.)
In my early years here in Nagano, when I was a member of the local hunting association, I came home one snowy night to find a young tanuki in my kitchen, with a note explaining that the little tanuki was an orphan and could I take care of it? In those days a few local hunters would dig tanuki out of their burrows and kill them for their fur and to make "tanuki jiru" hotpot. (Please take my word for it; stick to chicken, beef, pork, oysters etcetera!) I was aware that it is illegal to keep wild animals in Japan but I just couldn't kill the little creature. I hoped to get it through the winter and then gradually let it become used to the wild. It was nothing but trouble! It would not be house-trained. Shoes, slippers and so on were all targets. It chewed the telephone cable and got behind the television and demolished various wires. Then it hid in a speaker and lo, no more music. Finally it got into the guts of our washing machine and put that out of commission. Then, when one of my Irish setters tried to make friends, the little tanuki tyke bit her on the nose. I don't recommend tanuki as pets, although this one ended up living a long life under the care of a kind friend in Tokyo.
It seriously concerns me that sometimes we see tanuki with some kind of skin disease that causes them to shed their fur. A veterinarian friend said that this is probably mange, caught from dogs or cats, most likely from discarded cat litter. In winter this is surely fatal. If we live in the country I think we must be doubly careful of what we do with our garbage.
("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)