Tale of Ronin

Tanuki: Japan’s Cheerful Shapeshifting Trickster Spirit

Fox spirits like kitsune are found across many cultures, but the tanuki is a spirit unique to Japan. Tanuki yokai are based on a real animal the same way that kitsune are based on foxes. Traditionally, it is believed that all tanuki have supernatural powers that they use for mischief, trickery, and entertainment.

In real life, tanuki—also known as Japanese raccoon dogs—are a species of small canid found only in Japan. They are mainly nocturnal but can be active during daylight hours. Their growls have a similar pitch to domestic cats and they arch their backs like cats when agitated. However, they lower their bodies and show their bellies like other canids to show submission.

The tanuki’s most iconic ability is shapeshifting. Tanuki are notorious for changing into humans, and some of them are so good at passing for human that they live entire human lives without being detected. However, tanuki also shapeshift for convenience, to show off their magical prowess, or simply for fun. Supposedly, tanuki are better at shapeshifting than kitsune, but they often use their powers simply to make people look silly.

Traditionally, tanuki are said to dwell in forests and mountains. Before the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, tanuki were considered to be kami and rulers of nature. Over time, they came to be seen as messengers of the kami and guardians of certain areas. As a general rule, tanuki are less malicious than some kitsune can be. However, this does make them harmless. Each tanuki is a unique individual, and while some are jovial and friendly, others spirit humans away to eat or become servants of the kami.

While kitsune tend to have an air of the celestial about them, tanuki are much more earthly creatures. They’re fond of alcohol and often shapeshift into humans to buy it. Some have earned reputations as liars, drunkards, and cheats. Stories report that they turn into statues and horrifying monsters to play tricks on humans or simply to chase people away from certain places.

Overall, tanuki are considered to be symbols of good fortune, and tanuki statues are found all over Japan even today. In Tale of Ronin, players may well encounter people who believe in the powers—and luck—of tanuki. Certain choices may even lead gamers to meet mysterious figures with a penchant for pranks, sake, and a deep affinity for the natural world.