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The tanuki (狸) is a pudgy gray-brown animal (very rarely pure white) that looks like a cross between a raccoon and a dog, and is in fact often called a raccoon dog (or cross-badger, due to the cross-like markings on their backs). Ordinarily a nocturnal forest-dweller, it has webbed feet to facilitate activities in marshy areas. Omnivores, they enjoy eating rats, frogs, birds and bird eggs, fish, and insects in addition to a wide variety of fruits and vegetation, although their favorite food of all is persimmons; tanuki have been known to go to great lengths to obtain ripe persimmons.

While the tanuki is noted for "playing tanuki" or entering "fox's sleep" in which it feigns death to confuse predators, the male tanuki is most well-known for being a devious shapeshifting alcoholic trickster with an enormous scrotum. When masquerading as human he can often be identified by his straw sandals and hat and by his extreme fascination with gold. They do not seem particularly interesting in having gold, but they are often dazzled by the sparkle of gold and this can be used to both identify and trap a troublesome tanuki.

Male tanuki are liberal shapeshifters, of themselves or anything else, including inanimate objects or humans; they often make worthless dead leaves appear to be money, and may turn themselves or humans into teapots. They are especially fond of employing their testicular sac in ribald shapeshifting mischief, using it as a raincoat, blanket, boat, or causing it to appear to be a tengu. They also will transform their scrotum into an office and invite people to do business inside, or use it as a drum to annoy people in the middle of the night.