In a large but very old house there lived a Mr. Kitabayashi and his family. On the occasion of his son’s marriage, Kitabayashi gave quite a banquet, with choice food including the auspicious mixture of rice and red beans, the sekihan. The food was so plentiful that after the guests had retired there were still heaps left over; it being late, things remained as they stood, and the family went to bed.-Shortly afterwards a clock struck midnight, and at the same time Mr. Kitabayashi heard an unusual noise in the guest room, and suspecting a marauder decided to investigate: he carefully slid aside one of the fusuma, and peeped through the gap.
What was his surprise to see a couple of big badgers and a troop of young ones partaking of the sekihan! The parents eagerly helped the youngsters to gorge themselves, and they all seemed to have a really good time…. “Poor things”, thought the kind-hearted Mr. Kitabayashi; “they evidently are short of food and find it hard to satisfy all these mouths.” So he not only went to bed, leaving them to their enjoyment, but thenceforth laid out a meal for them every evening.
Now one night two real burglars broke into the house, and threatened Kitabayashi with a long sword, asking for money. “Unless you give us a large amount, we shall kill you all!” they warned. He and his family could but tremble and stay under their covers as if frozen by fear…. But then the fusuma were suddenly thrown apart, and two gigantic wrestlers entered the room…. “Rascals!”, they cried, “out you go, or we shall kill you with our bare hands!” And the burglars were scared to death and ran away as fast as their legs would carry them….
The relief of the family was naturally intense. “How can we ever thank you enough!” they cried, and deeply bowed their heads. But when they looked up again, the wrestlers had dis- appeared. Wondering for a long time what might really have happened, and glad of the supernatural help, they at length fell asleep.
Later on, Kitabayashi and his wife had a strange dream. A badger appeared to them, and thanked them for their kindness in providing so much food for him and his during a period of great shortage. It was only out of gratitude that they had helped when danger from burglars had threatened. There was nothing to worry about. So saying, the badger again vanished.
In old translations of folk tales, tanuki is often called a badger. Tanuki are not badgers. They are a type of canine with the markings of a racoon, and that is why tanuki are often called raccoon dogs. At first, confusing a badger with a dog seems strange. However, badger folklore predates tanuki stories by a few centuries. Badgers shared many of the same traits as tanuki: a love for pranks, shape-shifting abilities, and other abilities. Badger stories began in the 8th century only to disappear from the records until the 13th century with tanuki stories. During the 13th century, the badger merged with the tanuki and created a single folklore. Tanuki had long struggled with identity. He was confused with the fox. All told, the tanuki has enjoyed 800 years of stories. It sounds like a lot, but not when you compare the tanuki to the fox’s 2,200 years of playing tricks.
You can learn more about tanuki in my book. Tanuki: The Folklore of Japan’s Trickster.