The Farmer and the Tanuki

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The Tanuki is an animal that is unfamiliar to the west. Usually it is translated as "raccoon dog" as it looks a bit like a cross between those two animals. In Japanese folklore, tanuki play a role similar to the fox in European folktales. They are clever and play mean tricks on people, and also have the ability to shapeshift.


Mukashi mukashi ... (once upon a time) deep in the mountains, there lived an honest old farmer and his wife. Their closest neighbor was a mischievous tanuki, who would run out at night and spoil their fields. At least, he did so much damage to the farm that the farmer could take no more. He set many traps for the animal and one day was finally rewarded. The farmer bound the tanuki tightly with many ropes and brought him home, where he said to his wife, "At last I have caught the bad tanuki. You must watch him during the day while I work in the fields, and do not let him escape, because I want to make him into soup tonight!" And he hung up the tanuki from the rafters and went out to work.


The tanuki, of course, did not relish the idea of being made into soup, so he thought hard, trying to come up with a plan. Finally, as he watched the farmer's wife pounding barley, he had an idea.


"Grandmother," said the cunning beast, "you must be weary doing so much work. My arms are very strong. Let me work for a little while while you take a rest."


"I thank you for your kindness," replied the old lady, "but I must not untie you, because you might escape if I did, and then my husband would be very angry."


The tanuki said in a gentle voice, "You are unkind. I am so tired and sore tied up like this. I swear to you that I will not try to escape. Let me pound the barley, and when I am finished, you may tie me up again, and your husband will be none the wiser. Please let me down, if only for a few minutes!"


The old woman had a soft heart and a simple nature and could not think badly of anyone. So she cut down the tanuki and gave him the wooden pestle so that he could begin pounding the barley. But instead, the evil tanuki hit the old woman on the head and killed her. Then he cut her up and made soup out of her, and waited for the farmer to return home after assuming the old woman's appearance.


As the farmer entered his house, the tanuki said, "There you are, husband! I have made the soup and have been waiting a long time." He served a bowl to the old man, and then suddenly transformed back into his real shape. "You wife-eating old man!" cried the tanuki. "Look for the bones in the kitchen!" And with that, the evil animal fled back into the hills, laughing.


The poor farmer was heartbroken at what had happened. He wailed aloud. "Oh my wife! I cannot believe that I nearly ate you!" He cried and sobbed so loudly and for so long that his neighbor, a good-natured and wise old rabbit, came to see what was wrong. When the rabbit heard the story of what had happened, he said, "The tanuki has caused enough trouble. It's time to put an end to his evil ways." And he vowed to avenge the farmer's wife's death.


The next day was sunny and fine, and the rabbit went out to find the tanuki. When the rabbit finally spotted him, he called out, "Come out with me and we will cut grass on the hills together!" Because of this, the tanuki believed that the rabbit was unaware of what he had done to the farmer's wife, and he came out willingly. The rabbit led them miles away to the hills where the grass grew thick and sweet. When each of them had cut a full bundle, they tied their bundles onto their backs and set off home.


The path was narrow and the rabbit made the tanuki go first. The rabbit took out flint and steel and set the tanuki's bundle of grass on fire. The tanuki heard the noise and asked, "What is that noise that goes crack-crack?"


The rabbit said, "Oh, that is nothing. I said crack, crack because this mountain is called Crackling Mountain."


As the fire spread in the tanuki's bundle, he asked, "Now what is that?"


"We have come to Burning Mountain," answered the rabbit.


By this time the whole bundle was nearly burned away and had burned a fair bit of the tanuki's fur as well. Screaming with pain, the tanuki ran back to his hole. The rabbit found him there, moaning and groaning miserably.


"Oh dear," said that rabbit, "you are quite unlucky. I can't imagine what happened. I will bring you some medicine to heal your back quickly!"


The rabbit went home and mixed up an ointment that contained a good deal of red pepper. He returned to the tanuki's home and said, "Here I am. This is a wonderful paste that will make you feel better in no time!" He spread it all over the tanuki's burned backside. As the tanuki howled in agony, the rabbit began to feel that the farmer's wife was beginning to be avenged.


Unfortunately, the tanuki did recover from his burns, so about a month later, the rabbit invited the tanuki to go fishing with him on the ocean. He had built two boats, one of wood and another of clay. The rabbit gave the clay boat to the tanuki, who did not know any better. When they reached the ocean, the rabbit proposed a race. Both animals got into their boats and rowed as fast as they could. But sure enough, the tanuki's clay boat soon began to soften and fall apart.


"Help me!" the tanuki cried, "My boat is sinking!"


"You evil animal," replied the rabbit, "this is only what you deserve for so cruelly murdering the farmer's wife. Begone and plague us no more!" And he hit the tanuki over the head with his oar until the tanuki disappeared under the waves.


When the rabbit returned to the old farmer and told him what had happened, the old man wept tears of thankfulness. He begged the rabbit to stay with him and so they lived together as the best of friends until the end of their days.

Created: Apr 04, 2014

Tags: raccoon, prose, murder, story, rabbit, farmer, tanuki, fiction, revenge, folklore, japan, japanese, folk take, raccoon dog

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