Once upon a time, far in the countryside, a very clever child named Ichiro lived with his widowed mother. Both of them had to work hard in the field to survive.
Behind their house was hill and on this hill spread a forest. Its thick trees and bushes hid the territory of a Tanuki. It was a mischievous beast who only lived to trick people passing by.
One night the Tanuki was feeling bored, so he dressed himself has a traveler. Chuckling to himself, he came knocking to Ichiro’s door:
– Good evening! I’ve come a long way and I am so weary after this whole day walking. Please my good people, would you let me stay the night?
Ichiro opened the door. Beneath the wide hat shone impish eyes and under the ragged cloak one could guess the outline of a tail. He recognized immediately the Tanuki from the hill.
The widow was a kind and generous woman, always ready to help.
– My good sir you must be starving. Come sit here and share our meal.
They ate in a comfortable silence before the woman excused herself for the night.
The Tanuki turned to Ichiro:
– My boy, I’ve been told something incredibly scary haunts those hills. Could you tell me more about it?
Ichiro understood in a flash the Tanuki only wished to hear his tricks praised. But the boy had no wish to comply. He had a sudden idea:
– It is true we’ve had to deal with a frightening thing. But I can’t tell anyone, it’s so dangerous!
The Tanuki came eagerly closer:
– Please, tell me more boy!
Ichiro dropped his eyes to the ground:
– I am a bit embarrassed, sir. To-to be honest , we are all afraid of… manju buns.
The beast was so taken aback that some of its disguised vanished without him noticing:
– What? Manju buns? But buns aren’t scary at all!
The boy started to shake in mock fear:
– Please sir, let’s stop talking about that. Just thinking of buns gives me goosebumps!
The Tanuki saw Ichiro was trembling. Smiling mischievously under its paw, he muttered to himself:
– Oh, this is going to be fun!
The next morning, when Ichiro awoke, there was no sign of the Tanuki. But, everywhere in the house, fresh buns were piled.
The boy belted out a hearty laugh:
– What a stupid animal! Now we have plenty to eat! Mama, come see the gift the traveler left us!
The widow was a bit surprised but nonetheless delighted by this generous offer. She gave some to her neighbors and ate the rest with her son.
Up the hill, the Tanuki was fuming.
– That damn human, I’ve been fooled! I can’t let that pass!
And, in the dead of the night, he tossed hundreds of stones in the field of Ichiro’s family.
– Take this boy! You should have not crossed me!
The following day, Ichiro and his mother came to the field, only the find it full of pebbles. The widow cried:
– What happened to our dear land!?
But Ichiro, suspecting it was a new trick from the Tanuki, answered with a very loud voice:
– Everything is well Mama. You know what they say: stone your field every three year and you’ll have amazing harvests! I don’t know who did this, but I am so happy for their help! Better to have all these stones than awful horse manure!
With that said, the boy walked with his mother to their house murmuring:
– You’ll see, it’s gonna be okay!
Under the bushes, the Tanuki stood mortified:
– I did not know that stones were a good thing and horses droppings a bad one…
And, the same evening, the beast put away all the pebbles from the field only to replaced them with smelly horse manure.
The seasons went by and when came autumn, the widow and her son had an amazing harvest. The rich manure had worked wonders on the crops.
The Tanuki, head low, was crying under his bushes:
– Damn, damn! I’ve been fooled again! I am no match for that Ichiro.
Yet, the wind carried the Tanuki’s regrets to the boy’s ears. He smiled and said in a loud voice:
– Tanuki! Tanuki where are you? See all those sweet potatoes and juicy radishes? We’ve got plenty to eat thanks to your help! Come join us and share our meal!
The Tanuki was moved by this kindness. He went to Ichiro sniffing:
– Oh my boy! Thank you!
And from this day, the beast stopped all mischief and lived quietly up the hill behind Ichiro’s house, stopping by now and then to share a good meal… and a good laugh.
Tanuki (mostly called raccoon-dog in English), are mischievous yokai whose powers are like a Kistune’s (fox). They are master impersonators, with some tales depicting Tanuki living as humans without being ever being discovered.
Yet, unlike foxes, they are mostly seen as jovial, pleasure-seeking creatures; though, as with all yokai, their tricks aren’t always harmless!
In Japan, you can often see tanuki figures in front of shops as they are considered a symbol of luck and prosperity.
If you wish to learn more about tanuki folklore, I recommend Ghibli’s Pompoko which covers all the basics – especially the tanuki’s magical “golden balls”!