Before coming to Japan I hadn't even heard of the tanuki. The first time I saw a real one was in 2013, when we visited the Asahiyama Zoo in Hokkaido.
They look like raccoons and are sometimes called raccoon dogs. In fact, they aren't even related to raccoons. They are in the animal family related to wolves, foxes, and domestic dogs. The common raccoon found in the US is in the animal family with weasels, badgers, and otters. The similar appearance might be convergent evolution, where different species evolve to occupy the same ecological niche.
They are popular in Japanese folklore and are symbols of prosperity and ecomonic growth. The first known text reference was in 720 AD in a history book called "Nihon Shoki". They are recurring figures in folk tales throughout Japanese history, appearing as a trickster or a sign of good luck. In popular culture, they can be found in Nintendo video games and Studio Ghibli films.
I've never seen a real one outside of the zoo, but apparently, you need to watch out for them in some areas. Tanuki statues are seen everywhere though.
Have you seen or heard of tanukis? What do you think - cute or strange?