Every culture has a rich tapestry of folk tales and mythology, and Japan is no exception. You may be familiar with Yokai from scary stories or films, but there are some characters in the folk law that are a bit cuter, although they still might be naughty! Three animals are often written about in Japanese mythology, the tanuki, the kitsune and the cat.
The tanuki is still strongly featured around Japan. If you visit you will see statues outside houses or shrines of the tanuki, sitting on a large pair of testicles and drinking sake. Although these statues might not look exactly like tanuki, they are easily recognisable. In nature the tanuki is described as a racoon dog, in the wild they live in wooded areas and forage for fruits and bugs. In folklore, the tanuki takes a different approach with supernatural powers. The tanuki, in folklore, are said to be able to shapeshift into other animals, objects or people, or even control humans! Although it is said that rather than being mean the tanuki will shapeshift to fool people or make them look stupid! It is said that tanuki have eight special traits; a hat to protect against weather, eyes to make good decisions, sake for virtue, a big tail to be steady, scrotum for financial luck, a friendly smile, a belly that means they are bold and a note that trusts in their confidence. For a while tanuki were seen as yokai but they are now an icon and statues are placed outside homes and businesses to bring prosperity and fortune.
Kitsune are foxes that in Japan are believed to have supernatural powers. Again kitsune are, sometimes, defined as yokai, but it doesn’t mean the fox is dead or a spirit, any fox that lives a long time can get the power of superior intelligence and a long life. In Japanese folklore, there are two very different kitsune, the good foxes and the field foxes. Good foxes are the messengers of the god of rice Inari, and you will see statues of these kitsune at many shrines in Japan. On the other hand, field foxes are mischievous beings that may terrorise people or even possess them. The main power that kitsune have is shapeshifting, usually after living 100 years as a fox, kitsune can, therefore, impersonate anyone and women met alone at night were said to possibly be foxes! Some even said that kitsune could produce fire or lightning from their mouths or tails or interfere with people’s dreams. However it is not all bad, the good foxes can protect people against the field foxes, fight them off and ward against evil. Kitsune features a lot in Japanese tales, such as Noh or Kabuki, but also in manga and anime.
Cats feature strongly in Japanese folktales, especially due to the fact that they live between nature and civilisation, how they can be kind and loving but feral at the same time. It is said that once cats grow old their tail would split in two and they would become a yokai, of nekomata. It is said that if you raised a cat from between 7-13 years (depending on the area) it would become bakeneko, so sometimes people would kill cats before this date to stop it. However sometimes if you killed the cat that would make it become bakeneko and it would curse you and seek violent revenge. Again these bakeneko are gifted with supernatural abilities such as shapeshifting into human form, speaking human language or possessing humans. There are many famous tales of high-ranking families being infiltrated by shape-shifting cats, only to be cursed by the cat after it is vanquished. There are monuments across Japan depicting specific tales where cats have cursed or tricked humans.
It is very interesting to read the folk tales of Japan and see how animals can be tricksters and even disguise themselves as human!