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Strange Things About Japan

Why Raccoon Dogs Everywhere?

Last update May 5, 2021


When you get off at the railway station, it will be standing there (see the above photo)! Then, strolling down the streets, you’ll see more and more and more of them... grand bulky hulks, charming lads and lassies, schools of playful youngsters, and cuddly little babes... at shops’ gardens, entrances, hallways, and even roadsides. Yes, this is the village of “Shigaraki”, the home to pottery raccoon dogs (tanuki).

This rural town located in Shiga Prefecture is famous for numerous high-quality earthenware products, but nothing is more smile-inducing than these unique, round-eyed, belly-bulged tanuki figures. So, why specifically raccoon dogs, not dogs, foxes, cats, or even horses? And why are they so lovely? Let’s dig for answers.

According to the website of a long-established tanuki ceramic shop, a potter named Tetsuzo Fujiwara (and the shop’s founder) created the prototype of Tanuki of Shigaraki. His story goes like this:

At an autumn moonlit night, an eleven-year boy (Tetsuzo), a ceramic workshop apprentice heard exquisite drumming far away from the top of a mountain. Fascinated and intrigued, the boy stealthily climbed to the spot to have an unforgettable peek. There, golden-light-bathed raccoon dogs congregate, including old and young ones, humorously entertaining themselves by drumming their round bellies! As witnessing the raccoon dog belly drumming was so rare that only one out of tens of thousands could see (no wonder we haven’t seen one, have we?), it was believed to be the best of all fortunate signs.

Since then, the recreation of what he saw at the mountain top on this day became his obsession. Other ceramists began following him. Thus, Shigaraki gradually became the spot of cute raccoon dog products, which were repeatedly modified to attract even enhanced love and affection by people.

But it was still merely a local phenomenon until Emperor Showa (Hirohito) visited the place, who happened to be a collector of tanuki figures since childhood. Deeply impressed by raccoon dog dolls with a Hinomaru (the circle of the sun) flag in hand forming lines placed roadsides to welcome him, Hirohito composed a verse:

Seeing those Tanuki of Shigaraki
Made me long for the days in childhood
Collecting figures of this animal!

After this incident, the Shigaraki raccoon dog quickly gained national popularity. People in nearby regions visit the town to get good-luck objects for their house porch or garden while faraway customers can order ones and have them shipped.

By the way, another important fact about the Shigaraki pottery technique is its use in reproducing an almost entire historical collection of significant artworks by famous global painters, including Gogh, da Vinci, Renoir, Velázquez, Picasso, and whoever you name it, all one-stop at the Otsuka Museum of Art located in Tokushima Prefecture. The paintings look so authentic, and you can photograph or even touch them!