Tanukis are Japanese mammals that resemble a cross between a badger and a raccoon. Sometimes referred to as raccoon dogs in English, they are members of the dog family. Their English name is a bit misleading because raccoons are not members of the dog family.
Tanukis live primarily in lowlands, forests and mountain valleys on Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. Scientists recognize about a half dozen regional species and subspecies. Tanukis are also found in eastern and northeastern Asia. Japanese tanukis are originally from Siberia. In some places in eastern Europe they were introduced as a fur-bearing animals.
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Perhaps the best-known and most widely recognized of Japan's wild animals is the tanuki, or raccoon-dog. Even small children and hard-core urbanites can immediately pick out this canine's somewhat porky shape and distinctive black eye-mask. The common English name raccoon-dog, and the scientific species name procynoides (procyon is the genus name for the raccoon) both derive from this eye-mask. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, September 13, 2012]
Tanuki are thought to be represent a primitive member of the dog family. They originally evolved in North America, but later crossed over the Bering land bridge to Asia. The North American forms have since become extinct. Modern-day tanuki are widely distributed throughout East and Southeast Asia. In Japan, they are found on the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. The Hokkaido forms, or Ezo-tanuki, are usually considered a separate subspecies from the other Japanese animals, or Hondo-tanuki.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Raccoon Dog on Canid.org canids.org/species/Nyctereutes_procyonoides ; Raccoon Dog: a Successful Canid canids.org ; Wikipedia article on Tanukis Wikipedia ; Alien Raccoons in Japan pdf file airies.or.jp/publication ; Tanuki Statues onmarkproductions.com/html ; Folk Tale About a Wicked Tanuki mythfolklore.net ; Flying Squirrels in Japan Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel on Japan Animals japan-animals.blogspot.com ; Wikipedia article on the Momonga wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_dwarf_flying_squirrel
Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND ENDANGERED ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ALIEN ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BEARS, DEER, SEROW AND WILD BOARS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TANUKIS, FLYING SQUIRRELS, SMALL MAMMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SNOW MONKEYS (JAPANESE MACAQUES) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EAGLES, SWANS, CROWS AND BIRDS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CRANES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; IBISES AND CORMORANTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SNAKES, FROGS, LIZARDS AND TURTLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BEETLES, LAND CRABS AND INSECTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PLANTS AND FORESTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; GIANT SQUIDS, SHARKS , THE SEA AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WHALES, WHALING AND DOLPHIN HUNTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PETS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EXOTIC PETS, BIRD FIGHTS AND BEETLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DOGS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DOG BREEDS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan
Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/japan ;Japan Animals Blog /japan-animals.blogspot.com ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan hubpages.com/hub/japanfacts ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive
Tanuki Characteristics and Behavior
tanuki statue Tanukis have stout, rounded bodies, short legs and black and grey fur. They can reach a length of 60 centimeters and have distinctive stripes of black fur under their eyes, a bit like pandas or raccoons. Males have large testicles and scrotums which allows them to mate frequently. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Most members of the dog family are adapted to open habitats, and sport long legs for running down prey. The tanuki's "black-stockinged" legs, however, are way too short for the chase. They prefer a lifestyle of leisurely foraging in the forest floor. Tanuki are said to be excellent swimmers, and unusual for canines, can also climb trees. Persimmons are among their favorite tree foods. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, September 13, 2012]
Unlike many members of the dog family, which are fast and travel in packs, tanukis are largely slow-moving solitary animals. In the autumn and winter however they can often be seen in small family groups. Their short legs and compact profile are adapted for life in the forest. Rather than chasing down prey they are they more likely to amble along, foraging whatever they can find. They are active mostly at night.
Tanukis are omnivores who will eat pretty much anything: nuts, fruits, insects, crabs, grubs, crawfish, worms, centipedes, spiders, rodents, lizards, frogs, slugs, snails, honey, leaves, berries, acorns, other items from the forest. They even eat poisonous toads, apparently by diluting the poison with large amounts of saliva.
Tanukis play dead. They can be attacked and vigorously shaken by a dog and kicked by a hunter and lie without moving for about 30 minutes with a glazed over look in their eyes and then “wake up” and walk away. The tanuki mating season is from late winter to early spring. Four to six cubs are born in a den in early summer. Both parents care for the cubs, which grow quickly and reach sexual maturity within their first year.
Tanukis and Humans
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “The kanji used for tanuki in Japanese is the radical for a wild mammal combined with the symbol for a village. Indeed, the tanuki has always been very much at home in the agricultural countryside. Tanuki-nabe, or tanuki stew, is eaten in some mountainous areas. The fur of the tanuki is also valuable, and in the first half of the 20th century the animals were artificially introduced into eastern Europe. They have since spread and are considered an invasive alien species. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, September 13, 2012]
Tanukis sometimes come into gardens, farms and fields looking for food. Tanukis have adapted better than many animals to urban sprawl. They can be found in many suburbs and sometimes survive in the inner city. In Tokyo many live in storm drains around railroad tracks. Over 1,000 tanukis live in central Tokyo. In June 2008, the Japanese Emperor released an academic report with other researchers on the ecology of tanuki living on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Tanukis are frequently seen in the bushes near railroad tracks and thrive in places with lots of trees and greenery. They generally live in groups of around 10 and thrive because of the absence of stray dogs, one of their primary enemies in rural areas.
Tanukis are very proficient at taking advantage of whatever food sources are available. They are not above forging in garbage dumps, stealing food left for cats and dogs, or raiding chicken coops, sometimes biting off the heads of birds that stick their necks out of their cages. Sometimes their interaction with dogs causes them to get distemper and other diseases.
In some places tanukis are so numerous major culls are carried out. In Shibumura, a village on an island in the Oki Islands, a major cull was carried after the animals began taking cattle feed and radishes and other vegetables from farms. Tanukis are not native to the island. A pair introduced in World War II produced a population over 2,000, three the number of people on the islands, by the early 2000s. The population has continued to grow even with the culling of 30 to 100 tanukis a year. There is now a plan to reduce the number of tanukis to 1,000 over three years using traps. Many residents oppose the move and say more should be done to promote tanuki tourism as Shibumura is one of the few places one can easily encounter and approach tanukis even during the day.
Tanuki Folk Stories
In Japanese folklore, tanukis are regarded as mischievous creatures with high sex drives and magical powers that enable them to change their shape at will. Statues of fat, jolly tanukis holding a bottle of sake are the Japanese equivalent of garden gnomes. They can be found everywhere and are said to bring good luck. Tanukis and badgers have traditionally been hunted for meat and fur. Mujina is the name a stew eaten in mountain areas made from badger, tanuki or both.
According to folklore tanukis drum their stomach and can change their shape and cause people to have hallucinations who are then tricked by tanukis. Tanukis appear more often in Japanese legends and fairy tales than almost any other animal. They are often tricksters who play practical jokes and set traps, especially if they help them get some food.
Tanukis are known in folklore for crashing parties, drinking up sake and then paying with dry leaves instead of real money. Many stories revolve around battles of wits between tanukis and farmers or are fantastic tales with tanukis changing into monsters or beautiful women. Some Japanese porno web sites offer tanuki sex toys.
Grisly Tanuki Folk Stories
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Tanuki are the absolute stars of Japanese folklore. In stories and legends, they usually appear as trickster characters, able to bakeru, or change shape at will. Perhaps because they do cause some crop damage, these bake-tanuki shape-shifters are often portrayed as mischievous or outright malicious. A typical example can be seen in the popular fairy tale known as Kachi-kachi Yama. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, September 13, 2012]
This story starts off, as do many traditional Japanese fairy tales, with an elderly farm couple. The man goes out daily to work his fields, but is constantly troubled by an annoying tanuki. One day, the man uses some sticky paste to catch the critter, then trusses him up tightly and hangs him from a hook in the farmhouse. The man plans to have tanuki stew for dinner. He then goes back out to work, leaving the tanuki alone with his wife.
The clever tanuki, promising to help with the household chores, convinces the kind-hearted but very gullible woman to untie him. Free of his bonds, he bonks her over the head with a heavy pan and goes skipping away. The farmer comes home to find his wife unconscious. Later, a hare whom the old woman had befriended hears what happened, and vows to punish the naughty tanuki.
First the hare invites the tanuki on a mushroom picnic in the nearby mountains. The hare brings along the pot for making the stew, and has the tanuki carry a load of brushwood on his back for the cooking fire. Along the way, the hare slips behind the tanuki, and uses some flint stones to set the brushwood on fire. The name kachi-kachi is an onomatopoeic word for the clacking sound made by striking the flint stones against each other. Later, when the tanuki's burns heal, the hare invites him to go fishing, but sets him out in a boat made of dried mud. The mud soon melts and the tanuki falls into the river.
In most of the sterilized happy-ending versions available today, the thoroughly chastised tanuki apologizes to the old couple and mends his evil ways. The original story, however, is far crueler and scarier. The freed tanuki bashes in the poor old woman's skull, then cuts her body up into chunks and drops them into the cooking pot. The cunning trickster then shapeshifts into the form of the woman. When the man comes home, he and what he thinks is his wife enjoy a steaming hot bowl of what he thinks is delicious tanuki stew. Afterwards the tanuki shifts back into his original form, and the man realizes his horrible mistake. In the end, the tanuki is drowned in the river.
Tanukis, Arts and Crafts
momonga swarf flying sqirrel The Hayao Miyazaki anime film “Hesei Tanuki Wars” (“Hesei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko” in Japanese) is about tanukis use their magic to try to get their land back but eventually are forced to change into humans to survive. The film is set in the Tama Hills west of Tokyo, where tanuki habitat is being replaced by a housing project.
Ceramic tanukis commonly have a sake bottle in one hand, a passbook around their waist and sedge hat on their head. Some hold up a tool or object associated with profession or hobby of the owner. Statues outside restaurants and bakeries often carry a piece of cake or a bowl. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Smiling ceramic statues of rotund tanuki can often be seen standing in front of shops and restaurants. In these cases, the tanuki is treated as a symbol of prosperity, especially for forging ahead of the competition. These statues sometimes hold a a daifukucho, or traditional account book used by merchants. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, September 13, 2012]
The Shigaraki area of Koga, Shiga Prefecture, near Kyoto, is famous for producing porcelain tanukis. The first major tanuki-making kiln was started by Tesuzo Fujiwara (1876-1966), who was reportedly inspired bu seeing a tanuki on a river bank beating its belly. Making the facial expressions is said to be the hardest part of making a tanuki statue.
Flying Squirrels in Japan
momonga in flight Japan is home to three species of flying squirrel. Ezomomonga live only in northern Hokkaido. Regarded as a subspecies of the Russian flying squirrel or Siberian flying squirrel, they live in holes in trees and measure 15 centimeters from their snout to the tip of their tails.
Among the largest flying squirrel in the world is the Japanese giant flying squirrel, or musasabi. Found on Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku and parts of China, it measures two feet from the top of its head to the tip of its tail, has a wingspan of more tan 1½ feet and weighs up to five pounds. Japanese giant flying squirrel glide low and slow. The longest recorded flight on flat land is 160 feet. Flights of over 500 feet have been reported on downhill slopes.
The momonga is a small Japanese flying squirrel. Found in Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, it is only 15 centimeters long (not including the tail) and weigh less than 200 grams.
The musabi and momonga are primarily herbivorous, eating most tree leaves, buds, flowers, fruits, nuts, seeds and bark and occasionally insects. The Ainu worshiped flying squirrels as protector gods of children.
Flying Squirrel Mating
musabi, giant flying squirrel The two small species breed twice a year, once in the early spring and then again in the late summer. The musasabi also mates twice a year, but once in the winter and then again in early summer. Females establish and defend a small territory around their hole . Males cover more territory . When the female in estrus males chase each other and screech loudly. Usually the one closest the female is able to chase the others away and mate with the female.
Once mating is complete, the males often engages in another screeching battle. While this going on the female often drifts away to find another mate, and may mate as many as 19 times during the brief estrus period. The males inset a paste-like substance after their sperm in the female’s vagina. This helps push their sperm towards the egg and blocks the sperm of rival males. But this does not guarantee success. The male penis is outfit with a corkscrew-like devise that can pull out the plug of the pervious male and release his sperm so the new a rival can insert his sperm.
There aren't many squirrels in Japan. The Siberian Squirrel, native to Hokkaido but also found elsewhere in Japan, is a kind of chipmunk. The Japanese squirrel is found on Honshu and Kyushu. It has tufted ears and fur that changes color in the seasons (from red orange in the summer to whitish grey in the winter). They spend nearly all their time in trees, moving between several bell-shaped nests, and use their tail as a kind of a parachute when they jump between trees. They don’t hibernate. Like other squirrels, they horde food so they can retrieve it when food supplies are low in the winter.
musabi in flight The nihon-risu, or Japanese squirrel, is sometimes called a ki-nezumi, or "tree mouse,” in the countryside. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Squirrels actually are close relatives of mice, classified in the same Order Rodentia (gesshi-moku). All animals in this order have a set of chisel-like incisor teeth that are ideal for gnawing. These teeth continue to grow throughout the animal's lifetime, and are kept honed to a sharp edge by constant use. Squirrels belong in the family Sciuridae, which also includes chipmunks, woodchucks and prairie dogs. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, may 24, 2012]
“Japan is home to two native species of tree squirrel, one species of chipmunk, and three species of flying squirrel. There is also an invasive alien species of squirrel that has been introduced and now breeds. The nihon-risu (Sciurus lis) is an endemic species, originally found on the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. A separate species, the ezo-risu, is found on Hokkaido. This is a subspecies of the common red squirrel (S. vulgaris) that distributes clear across the Eurasian continent from the British Isles to the Pacific seaboard.
“Squirrels are almost exclusively vegetarian in diet, feeding on a wide variety of leaves, flowers, buds, bark and berries. Their specialty, however, is hard nuts and seeds. Ecologists refer to their lifestyle as scatter-hoarding. They do not hibernate. From summer through autumn, when food is abundant, they collect seeds and nuts to bury or stuff into small openings and corners in tree trunks and branches. Nihon-risu are active during the day, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. Among their favorite foods are walnuts, which they are able to split neatly in half at the seams, and pine nuts, which they obtain by gnawing through the cones, starting at the base and working their way up to the tip. Stripped pine cones, which Japanese call ebi-furai to "fried shrimp," are typical indicators of squirrels at work.
“Squirrel nests, usually located high in the branches of a sturdy conifer, are woven with twigs, leaves, moss and long strips of bark peeled from cryptomeria and cypress trees. Squirrels rest and sleep in these nests, and also raise their families in the protected environment.Nihon-risu mate in early spring, and the females give birth to three to six blind, naked young, which are weaned in about four to six weeks. Females can begin mating the following spring.
“Japanese squirrels are not officially listed as an endangered species, but local populations in westernmost Honshu and the Kyushu region are in grave trouble, and may already be extinct. In the area of northern Chiba Prefecture where I live, local squirrels appear to have moved out of the countryside and onto golf courses.
“This reason behind this move was a pine-wilt disease, caused by an alien worm spread by a native longhorn beetle, which over the past half century has almost completely wiped out the local satoyama pine woods in the warmer areas of Japan. Squirrels, it seems, depend heavily on the nutrient rich pine nuts. Our local golf courses have planted and through careful nursing have been able to maintain substantial pine groves, which attract the squirrels.
Hares, Rabbits and Picas in Japan
The long-eared mammals found in most of Japan are hares not rabbits. The only rabbit is the Amami black rabbit (See Endangered Animals) found on two islands Amami Oshima and Tokunishima in northern Okinawa Prefecture.
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Hares are mammals in the Order Lagomorpha, which also includes rabbits and picas. Lagomorphs are closely related to rodents, but differ in having two rather than one pair of chisellike incisors in their upper jaw. Like rodents, the lagomorph incisors continue to grow throughout the life of the animal, and are kept honed to a fine edge by constant use. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, February 3, 2011]
Some people think the English words hare and rabbit are synonyms, but these animals are actually quite different. Hares are larger heavier and have longer ears than rabbits. With their longer legs they can out jump rabbits. They tend to live simple shelters known while rabbits usually live in underground warrens. Most species of rabbit give birth in their protected warrens, or burrows, and their kits are born blind and hairless. Hares, in contrast, give birth in a simple ground nest, called a form or scrape, often hidden in a dense thicket. Their young, known as leverets, emerge fully furred and with their eyes open, and in a matter of days are able to fend for themselves.”
“In addition to the Japanese hare (nihon-nousagi) and the Amami-no-kurousagi or Amami black rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) on the island of Amami Oshima south of Kyushu, Japan is home to two other lagomorphs. The yuki-usagi, or mountain hare (L. timidus), and the naki-usagi or northern pika (Ochotona hyperborea) are found on Hokkaido.
“These lagomorphs neatly illustrate the origin of Japanese mammals. The mountain hare and northern pika are subspecies of common forms that are distributed clear across the Eurasian continent. They most likely entered Hokkaido from the north during a glacial epoch, when that island was connected to Siberia. The Japanese hare, in contrast, is closely related to species in China and Korea, and arrived here from the west; while the black rabbit is a primitive relict species, that originally came from the south when the Ryukyu Islands were connected to Taiwan and the mainland.”
“Lagomorhs utilize a unique digestive system to get the maximum nutrition from course food. Rough fibers are first separated out and excreted. These are the scats we find lying in the fields. The rest of the partially digested food is then wrapped in a thin mucous lining and excreted separately. These special feces, called cecotropes, are immediately reingested and passed through the digestive system a second time.”
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri that the “ nihon-nousagi “ or Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus) is found on the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and is an endemic species, which means it is not native anywhere outside the country. Although quite common in most areas, the hare is highly nocturnal and thus rarely seen. Only tracks in the fields and clusters of round scats reveal its nightly feeding forays.” [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, February 3, 2011]
“Hares are complete vegetarians, feeding on both soft herbaceous plants and harder grasses and sedges. The Japanese hare was quite at home in the satoyama, or traditional countryside landscape, where woodland undergrowth was typically cut annually, providing an excellent habitat for low-growing herbs and grasses to thrive in.”
“Japanese hares mate and give birth several times from early spring through late summer. Hares usually give birth two or three litters a year. Young hares are born fully furred with their eyes open and ready to take car of themselves. Rabbits have many litters. They go through much more trouble to take care of their young. Young rabbits are born naked with their eyes closed.
Like most lagomorphs, their basic strategy is to offset low survival with high reproductive rates. During the breeding seasons males fight one another and females who are not ready to mate kick away ardent males. This wild behavior in an otherwise timid animal is at the base of the old European saying "mad as a March hare." Hares usually stay hidden throughout the daylight hours, an adaptation designed to protect them from hawks and eagles. When flushed by dogs or foxes, they rely on blazing speed to escape. European hares have been clocked at 70 kph.”
In Japan there are Shinto shrines dedicated to hares and folk tales and songs written about them.
Japanese hares that live in northern Honshu are mottled brown in color most of the year. When they days become shorter in late autumn they begin molting and turn white by the time winter arrives. Japanese hares than live in southern Honshu where there isn’t much snow retain their mottled brown color in the winter. The mountain hare of Hokkaido and Japanese least weasel (also known as the ezo-okojo or okojo ermine also turn white.
Japanese hares live in Kyushu and Honshu. A completely different species, the mountain hare, lives in Hokkaido. Japanese hares are related to hares that live in China and Korea. Mountain hares are related to species that live across northern Asia and Europe. The reason for this is that when sea levels dropped during the ice ages animals easily migrated between China, Korea, Kyushu and Honshu and between Russia and Hokkaido but not between Honshu and Hokkaido which are separated by the deep Tsugaru Straits.
Ermine, Badgers and Civets in Japan
hondo With the extinction of wolves, the only true carnivores found in Japan are small weasels, ermine, stoats and martens.
Masked palm civets are known as hakubishin in Japanese. With lifestyle patterns similar to those of raccoons, they are omnivorous and primarily nocturnal creatures that often make their homes under roofs or floorboards of people’s houses. They are not native to Japan and are thought to have been introduced from China. They live mostly in villages in valleys in mountainous areas. Masked palm civets have been blamed for causing extensive crop damage in Saitama Prefecture.
In Japan there are two species of ermine: hondo-okojo and ezo-okojo. The okojo ermine is carnivore that reaches a length of 20 centimeters and is found primarily in forested and alpine regions of northern Honshu and Hokkaido. It loses its white winter coat in early April, weeks earlier than it did in the 1980s and starts getting the coat in December, weeks later than it did in the 1980s. Warm winters and global warming are seen as the reason why. In the 1980s the species was often spotted at elevations below 1,300 meters. But these days you don’t see them below 1,500. Competition from foxes in the ermines’s habitat to chase mice and voles that have moved to higher elevations is the explanation for this.
The Japanese badger is a subspecies of the common badger. Known as the anaguma (literally "hole bear"), they live in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu but not Hokkaido. There distribution tends to suggest that arrived on a land bridge from Korea in ancient times. Today they are considered an endangered species. Badgers are omnivorous that eat nuts, fruits, insects, honey, leaves, acorns, other items from the forest and meat. They like to make their dens on heavily forested slopes.
The “itachi”, or Japanese weasel, is endemic to Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and has been introduced to other islands as a means fo controlling the rodent populations there. A carnivore, it thrives in both the country where they often feed on snakes, frogs, crayfish and crabs from rice paddies. Urban ones survive on mice and large insects such as grasshoppers. Siberian weasel have been introduced to Japan and in some places are displacing Japanese natives.
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Once in a while a lucky observer in the Japanese countryside catches a fleeting glimpse of a small brown animal darting along an irrigation ditch. With a long, narrow tubular body and short legs, and able to run very fast and very low to the ground, this is an itachi, or Japanese weasel. [Source: Kevin Short, April 5, 2012]
Weasels are members of the Mustelidae, or mustelid family (itachi-ka), a group of mostly long, slender-bodied mammals in the Order Carnivora. Mustelids have razor-sharp teeth, and most are primarily carnivorous. Some of the smaller species, however, are quite omnivorous, and supplement their diet heavily with fruits and berries. A characteristic of the family is powerful anal scent glands that are used to mark territory and as a form of communication among individuals in a breeding population.
“The Mustelidae also includes such familiar creatures as badgers, sea and river otters, martens, minks and stoats. The most formidable members of the family are the wolverines, which hold their own in scrapes against lynxes, timber wolves and even bears. Mink, sable and ermine are mustelids especially valued for their luxurious fur. The cutest and most popular members are usually the intelligent, sociable otters, but ferrets are also kept as pets.
“Zoologists recognize about a dozen and half species of weasel worldwide. The itachi (M. itatsi) is an endemic species, found only here in Japan. As is the case with many Japanese mammals, the itachi's natural distribution includes Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu but not Hokkaido. Out here in the rice paddy countryside of northern Chiba Prefecture, I most frequently spot weasels along the drainage canals that run through the center of the valleys. Here fish, frogs, crabs and crayfish are plentiful in and around the water, and rodents and small birds hide in the tall grasses that flourish on the banks. The Japanese itachi, however, also eats many fruits and berries available in the nearby fields and thickets, and in some areas may even be an important disperser for plant seeds.
“The itachi are reddish brown with some white and dark gray markings on their faces. They are very small creatures. The body of a male, from tip of nose to base of tail usually only measures a bit more than 30 centimeters. Females are a full 10 centimeter shorter, and in some areas weight only one-third that of the males. Still, despite their size, these weasels are formidable predators, willing to take on prey much larger than themselves. I have even heard stories of them bringing down hares.
“Weasels are not very popular creatures. In English, to be called a weasel is definitely not a compliment. The image is sneaky and untrustworthy, with a vicious streak. My paternal grandfather, who was born in New York of Irish and Scottish stock, was obsessed with weasels, which he seemed to imagine as large dangerous animals. He often brought along a heavy "weasel-stick" with him when we went walking.
Itachi Weasels and Japanese Folklore
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Like many Japanese animals, the itachi appears in various avatars. In addition to the simple living creature that hunts along the ditches, there are several superpowered yokai versions, known as Kama-itachi, or "sickle weasels." The tip of each Kama-itachi limb is fitted with a razor-sharp sickle, and the creatures move about in whirlwinds too fast to follow with the naked eye. [Source: Kevin Short, April 5, 2012]
Kama-itachi have been reported in various regions of Japan. Whenever people working outside find small, previously unnoticed cuts on their bare skin, they attribute it to a Kama-itachi. These stories are especially popular in the colder regions, and some researchers think that the idea of a Kama-itachi may have developed from small cuts that can easily form in skin that has been heavily chapped by the wind and cold.
“In some regions, the Kama-itachi is believed to be actually three weasels working together. The first one prepares the skin surface, the second delivers the cut, and the third rubs on some herbal medicine that seals the wound. All this happens in a blink of an eye!
Sometimes the Kama-itachi is said to be an izuna, which is actually the name of a different species of mustelid, the least weasel (M. nivalis). This is the smallest of all the mustelids, but enjoys a wide distribution from the arctic through the cool temperate zones clear across both the North American and Eurasian continents. Here in Japan, the izuna is found on Hokkaido and the northern tip of Honshu. In these cases, however, one must keep in mind that Japanese common names for animals vary widely from region to region, and the term izuna may also refer to the Japanese weasel as well.
“Another belief regarding weasels, prevalent in mountain villages, is that women in certain households have under their control a number of miniature weasel spirits, which can be used for fortune-telling or prophesies, or sent on magical errands across the countryside to do their mistress's bidding. These families, called izuna-tsukai, are traditionally feared and segregated against. In some regions, the animal spirits under their control may be instead dogs, foxes or snakes. The magical rites and spells for controlling the spirits are passed down from woman to woman.
“Kama-itachi no Yoru, or "Night of the Kama-itachi," is the title of a long-selling computer game in which characters trapped in a hotel must solve the mystery of a serial killer in their midst. There is also a popular owarai-konbi, a comedian duo, called Kama-itachi.
Foxes in Japan
Hokkaido fox Foxes in Japan are omnivorous. They eat nuts, fruits, insects, honey, leaves, acorns, other items from the forest and meat. Japanese Foxes are regarded as a subspecies. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: The Japanese red fox, usually just called kitsune, feeds on all sorts of small to medium-size animal prey, including insects, crabs, frogs, birds and mice and other rodents. One of their favorite prey is the Japanese hare. Both these animals are speed demons, but the fox is just a wee bit faster. Foxes also eat a variety of fruits and berries, and will raid crops, and scavenge animal carcasses and even human garbage. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, May 10, 2012]
“Foxes breed in underground dens, which they dig themselves. Litters usually consist of three to five pups, which stay with their mother, learning the tricks of survival, until their first autumn. Most of the pups then set out on their own, but some females may remain behind to help their mother raise a new set of pups the following spring.
“Zoologists recognize several dozen subspecies of red fox, two of which are found here in Japan. The Ezo red fox, or kita-kitsune (V.v. schrencki) lives on Hokkaido, and the Japanese red fox, or hondo-gitsune (V.v. japonica) on Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku.
“The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are one of the world's most widespread and successful carnivores. Their range includes almost all of the Eurasian and North American continents, and they live in habitats that vary from arctic tundra to full desert. The secret of their success is adaptability. They are intelligent, curious, and quick to take advantage of new feeding opportunities, especially in agricultural and even suburban landscapes.
Foxes, Religion and Folklore
a fox In Japanese folklore foxes are regarded as clever and magical animal who act messengers for the gods, particularly the God of the Harvest, and are symbols of fertility. Killing one sometimes results in punishment by the gods. Small shrines for rice and harvest gods are found at Shinto shrines and some Buddhist temples. They are invariably guarded by foxes. Foxes are believed to have the power to change their forms, possess humans and cause people to have hallucinations so they can trick them. Their favorite entry point is under the fingernails. Their favorite food is said to be deep-fried tofu, which is often found in shrines next to fox statues. Foxes and tanukis are said to have the ability to cause hallucinations in people and trick them.
Foxes in Japan are omnivorous. They eat nuts, fruits, insects, honey, leaves, acorns, other items from the forest and meat. Japanese Foxes are regarded as a subspecies.
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Foxes are among the great perennial stars of Japanese folklore. To begin with, they are considered to be familiar spirits serving the immensely popular rice deity Inari. A set of two stone foxes stand watch in front of every Inari shrine. Some folklorists believe that foxes became associated with rice farming because of their role in controlling mice, hares and other agricultural pests. In the past farmers would even leave out food to attract foxes to their rice paddies. Foxes are thought to be especially fond of abura-age, thin slices of deep-fried tofu soy bean paste. Pockets of abura-age stuffed with rice are known as Inari-zushi. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, May 10, 2012]
“Yo-gitsune is the Japanese word for fairy foxes. “In contrast to the favorable agricultural image, foxes have also been traditionally imagined as clever tricksters and shape-shifters. These yo-gitsune can be encountered in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Like cats and many other Japanese fairy animals, their magical powers grow stronger with age. After living for a century or two, yo-gitsune become able to possess people, causing illness or insanity, and also to temporarily shape-shift into incredibly glamorous women. Stories abound of men falling hopelessly in love with and marrying these "foxy ladies.”
“In one famous story, a 10th-century nobleman saves a fox from a mob bent on killing it for its liver. A few days later, a beautiful woman mysteriously appears at his door. They fall madly in love, get married and have a son. Three years later, the woman suddenly disappears, leaving a note explaining to her husband that she was really just the fox whose life he had saved. Their son grows up to be Abe no Seimei, the famous Onmyoji Yin-Yang wizard who protects the imperial court and the capital city from all sorts of wicked spells and disasters.
“After living for a full millennium, fairy foxes may attain a formidable style with nine tails. Nine-tail foxes, or Kyubi no Kitsune, are of Chinese origin, but have also been active in Japan as well. During the Edo period (1603-1867), motifs depicting heroes ridding the land of these often ill-tempered nine-tail foxes were widely adopted into traditional theater, literature and art.
“Until quite recently, mental illnesses and emotional instability were frequently attributed to possession by fox spirits, especially in isolated rural villages. Even more frightening, there are families, called tsukimono-mochi, which are rumored to keep tiny fox spirits in vases or bamboo tubes. These spirits can be sent out on various missions, such as searching for gold or treasure, stealing, spying on people, or just causing all sorts of trouble and misfortune. The secrets of caring for and controlling these fox spirits, or in some cases similar dog or weasel spirits, are passed down from generation to generation among women of the household. Families which are rumored to possess fox spirits are feared and shunned.
“Another peculiarity of fairy foxes is that they tend to emit strange lights at night. One very famous spot for kitsune-bi fox-fire is the Inari shrine at Oji in Kita Ward, Tokyo. Every New Year's Eve foxes from all over the Kanto region are believed to assemble here under an ancient hackberry tree. The local farmers predict the yields of the coming season's crops by the number of glowing lights they count.
Shrew Moles and Moles in Japan
Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Shrew-moles are tiny soft-grey mammals that are not particularly rare in the rice paddy countryside, but they live such secluded lives that few people are even aware of their existence. The Japanese shrew-mole is an endemic species found only on Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and some near-shore islands. The Japanese name, hi-mizu, means something like "Sun — No Look," and refers to these animals' habit of spending most of their lives underground...Japan is also home to the hime-himizu (Dymecodon pilirostris), a smaller species, also endemic, that prefers higher elevations. The American shrew-mole of the Pacific Northwest is only distantly related to the Japanese species. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, April 11, 2011]
“Moles, which thrive in grassy areas and produce fields of molehills, are far more familiar creatures than shrew-moles. These two types of creatures have similar grey bodies, and may look alike at first glance, but can easily be told apart. Moles have short, thick snouts, short tails, and very wide powerful front feet. Shrew-moles, in contrast, have long, trunklike snouts, medium-length tails, and smaller feet...Although often thought to be blind, both moles and shrew-moles do have eyes. These are so tiny, however, and so well hidden among the soft fur, you have to spend some time searching to find them. These mammals do not hear very well either, but are very sensitive to touch. Their snouts, in particular, are equipped with long hairs that help them feel obstacles as well as prey.”
“The wide front feet of a mole are splayed out almost directly to the side of the body. They are adapted to efficiently excavating elaborate networks of tunnels through soil, and are also quite useful for swimming. Shrew-moles, however, do not live deep down in the soil. They instead spend much of their time shuffling through the humus and leaf litter that collects on the floor of the forest. Their feet are thus narrower and directed more in a downward slant — not nearly as efficient for digging but better for getting around on the ground.”
“Although small in size, shrew-moles have powerful jaws and sharp teeth. They prowl actively for earthworms, centipedes, hunting spiders, pill-bugs, ground beetles, snails and other small forest-floor animals. Occasionally they emerge to hunt in the open, especially after dark, and sometimes supplement their diet with seeds they find on the ground...Shrew-moles make a fine meal for various predators, including tanuki, fox, badger, owls and hawks. Weasels and martens are especially dangerous, as are snakes. Several of Japan's rat snakes are easily large enough to swallow a shrew-mole; while mamushi pit-vipers, with their heat-sensitive organs, can locate the tiny mammals at night by zoning in on their body heat.”
Other Mammals in Japan
The number of rats in the cities appears to be on the rise. They have been blamed for starting fires by nibbling through electrical wires and making nests in vending machines. Many of the rats are roof rats which are harder to control than the more common Norway rat.
Bonin flying foxes are among the endangered animals in the Ogasawara island. When lemon and agave production was introduced to the islands the bats began eating these and neglecting their role in spreading the seeds of rare plants on the island. Now the bats are considered a pest by farmers and are threatened by feral cats. An effort is being made to round up feral cats and ship them to Honshu.
Image Sources: Japan Animals blogs except tanuki statues (Ray Kinnane)
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated January 2013