Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, The Fox and the Badger in Japanese Folklore, Japanese Wikipedia, and OnMarkProductions.
Kitsune (foxes) and tanuki share much in common. They are the only two animals in Japanese folklore that are naturally magical—they don’t need to live a certain number of years to manifest their powers. Their stories both come from similar source legends in China, and dogs are their bitter enemies. Like many tribes who share so much in common, they are also rivals.
And while they rarely (if ever) engage in knock-down, drag-out fights, confrontations between kitsune and tanuki do happen occasionally. Usually they are magical showdowns of shape-changing ability, in the most classic “demonstration of magical powers” –style combat. Kitsune vastly overpower tanuki in these contests, but tanuki are much better tricksters. And in these cases, the mischief of the tanuki beats the pure evil of the kitsune.
What does Kori no Tatakai mean?
Put the kanji for tanuki (狸) with the kanji for kitsune (狐) together and you get the word kori (狐狸). In ancient times, kitsune and tanuki were considered to be a single group, and the word kori was used in a association with both of them. It appears as far back as 702 CE, in Section VII of the Zokutō Ritsu (賊盗律; Laws Concerning Robbers) which warned against the practice of using smoke to force “kori” (tanuki and kitsune) out of their dens in graveyards.
(And because Japanese is an extra-confusing language, through the kanji for dog in the middle of kori and the word transforms into kokkori (狐犬狸; Fox, Dog, Tanuki) and refers to the Japanese name for a Ouija Board,)
Much simpler is the term no tatakai (の闘い) with just means “battle of.”
Danzaburō Danuki and the Tanuki of Sado Island
Most Kori no Tatakai involved Danzaburo Danuki and his defense of the tanuki kingdom on Sado Island from invasion by kitsune. Danzaburo Danuki is a legendary figure, possibly based on a real person who lived on Sado Island in the 1650s. Danzaburo (the human) is said to have brought the tanuki to Sado Island as a dealer in meats and pelts. He released several tanuki cubs that soon populated the island. Or at least that was his cover—legends grew that said that Danzaburo was not a human at all, but a powerful bakedanuki (化け狸; transforming tanuki) smuggling his tanuki clan to the island to create a tanuki paradise free from the foxes and dogs that plagued them.
There are many stories of Danzaburo Danuki on Sado Island. He is somewhat of a folk hero. In by Kyokutei Baki’s Enseki Zasshi (燕石雑志 ; ) Danzaburo was said to recover lost treasure from hidden valleys and homes abandoned to fire and war, then loaaned his wealth to the poor island fishermen. This is unusual for a tanuki figure, who deal in illusion and trickery. The money Danzaburo Danuki leant was real gold and didn’t turn into useless leaves like is so many other tanuki tales. He wasn’t entirely pure though—when the fishermen stopped paying him back he stopped loaning out.
But by far the most famous Danzaburo Danuki tales are how he defended Sado Island from the Kitsune.
Danzaburo vs Kitsune – Round 1
Danzaburo Danuki was preparing to take his boat across to Sado Island one day, when he saw a kitsune waiting on the shore. The kitsune said he was looking for a new home for his clan, and wondered if Danzaburo might give him a ride across in his boat—the kitsune could not swim and had no money for passage. Danzaburo agreed, but asked that the kitsune transform himself into a vest so that it would be lest suspicious when he arrived at the far side.
The kitsune agreed that this was a good plan, and transformed himself into a vest that Danzaburo pulled on. Pulling the oar, Danzaburo whistled to himself quietly making his way across the stretch of ocean to Sado Island. When they were about half-way across, Danzaburo calmly slipped off the vest and dropped it into the ocean, leaving the kitsune to drown.
Danzaburo vs Kitsune – Round 2
Danzaburo Danuki met a powerful kitsune near Futatsu Iwa on Sado Island. Danzaburo was not about to allow a kitsune to set foot on Sado Island, and challenged him to a duel—a show of transforming powers. Danzaburo boasted “You may be hot stuff back home but your powers are nothing compared to mine. I don’t just turn from one thing into another. I can transform myself into an entire Daimyo’s procession!”
The kitsune—confident that no mere tanuki could out-transform him—accepted the challenge and settled back to watch Danzaburo make a fool out of himself. “Go ahead,” the kitsune smirked, “show me what you can do.”
In an instant, Danzaburo had disappeared. The kitsune was startled for a moment, but he was even more surprised when a Daimyo’s procession appeared, complete with armored warriors and bearers carrying a heavy palanquin.
“Unbelievable!” He did it!” The kitsune couldn’t believe that such a magical feat and been transformed, and leapt up on top of the palanquin to test the solidness of the illusion.
Unfortunately for the kitsune, Danzaburo was a better boaster and liar than a transformer. He timed his trick perfectly to disappear right when the very real Daimyo’s procession would come along the path. The soldiers, seeing a fox leap on the palanquin and appear to attack their Lord, grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and chopped its head off with one swift blow.
More Kitsune/Taunki Battles
According to Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, the kitsune tried many times to invade Sado Island over the years, but where always beaten back by Danzaburo and his clan. That’s why to this day, there are no foxes on Sado Island—all though there are lots and lots of tanuki.
Another legendary Kitsune/Tanuki battle appeared in the kamishibai theater. Attributed to Musashi Jūnin (武蔵住人), Flying-Dragon Tanuki vs Nine-Tailed White Fox ran for the 21-installments. The story told of the villainous Nine-Tailed White Fox spiriting off the beautiful maiden Hagino, and the Flying-Dragon Tanuki’s battle to rescue her.
This was translated for Katriel Page, who knows way more about kitsune than I do. A big thanks to Mark Schumacher and his OnMarkProductions site, which any fan of Japanese folklore should already have bookmarked.
For more tanuki and kitsune tales, check out: