Have you ever seen those dogs on Instagram that communicate by pressing buttons that play recorded words? In April 2021, Terrie tamed a wild tanuki, brought it home, and taught it to communicate with buttons. Then things took a turn for the worse.
Hey, hey, this is Terrie and you’re listening to Uncanny Robot Podcast. Richard had an idea and I’m here to tell you about it. A year and a half ago I did a show on my other podcast, Uncanny Japan, called Tanuki Buttons. It was wildly different than anything I’d done before and it required me coaxing Richard out of the comfort of his man cave and sound studio to join me in front of the mic. It also involved a lot more sound design and sound effects than we usually used before. Looking back, I guess you could almost say that that show might possibly have been the impetus for what is now Uncanny Robot Podcast.
That said, there was zero AI in the story. AI wasn’t even a thing regular people could use back then. Tanuki Buttons was just an idea I had to entertain my listeners and it got slightly out of hand and went a little bonkers.
We’re still experimenting with Uncanny Robot Podcast as far as the way we tell stories, their length, tone, genre, as well as how and when to use sound effects and sound design. So please feel free to let us know what you think, you like, you don’t like, you want more of, you want less of, or maybe something unusual you’d like us to try. Anything at all. You can find us on all the regular social media platforms, but if you’d like a little more room to talk and meet others, you can find the Discord link at the bottom of the show notes for each episode, as well as on the website itself. Don’t worry about being weird. We’re way ahead of you. You’re one of us. So let us know what you think. Today’s a weird old story, Tanuki Buttons.
Here it is spring in Japan, already the first of April and the cherry blossoms are starting to bloom. Just about time for Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. But before that, boy do I have a show for you today. Something incredible happened. For context, I live in a relatively rural area of Japan. There’s the old house that I’m in, and I have two neighbors on either side. One is a 70 something year old widow and the other is an 80 something year old widow. Otherwise, there are a lot of rice fields, narrow footpaths, some overgrown vegetable gardens, there’s a couple greenhouses and a shrine that’s surrounded by these tall, leaning pine trees. It’s quite lovely. It’s secluded, and for the most part really quiet. Since there are no city lights and only a couple of old lamp posts spaced far apart down one of the narrow roads, this place is fantastic for watching the night sky. And that’s how this all started.
In The Beginning
Last fall, I was out one evening staring up at the full moon. It was dark, red and low in the sky, so it looked extra huge. It was one of those moments where you see something so gorgeous that you want to share it with someone. I actually looked around hoping to catch maybe an old man on a bicycle riding by or some high school students coming home late from their studies. But nope, I was all alone.
Or so I thought. Just when I was about to dreamily gaze back up at the moon again, I saw a tanuki sneak out from a crop of trees. Then, there under the glow of one of the yellowing street lights, it stood up on its hind legs and looked up at the sky. It was watching the moon too! I must have eeped or something, because it heard me. It turned and we made eye contact. Instant goosebumps, and a very strange feeling just kind of ran through me. We actually stared like that for a minute or so before he dropped to all fours again and scampered off, back into the trees.
For the next couple days I couldn’t get that tanuki out of my head. Where did he come from? I hadn’t seen him before, and why did he look so sad and lonely? Where was his family, or did he have a pack? I mean, from what I could make out that night, the dude was in bad shape. His fur was all patchy and he was really skinny. Aren’t tanuki supposed to be fat? I decided to do something about it.
I did a little research and I learned that tanuki actually hibernate. And if they don’t have enough meat on their bones, they won’t survive the winter. So my guy was like zero percent body fat.
Now, I had a mission. I then looked up what kind of foods they eat and I found the answer was basically anything. I had just finished dinner and I had some leftovers: yakisoba noodles. I made a nice plate for him and I left it out on my porch that night. What I found the next morning was hilarious. Indeed, the tanuki or something had devoured the yakisoba, licking the plate perfectly clean! All except the thinly-sliced green peppers, that is. They had been pushed off the dish and stacked neatly to the side. But was this really the tanuki?
Since my bedroom is on the second floor right above the front door, the next night I left a cut-up apple on the porch, and my window open. Sometime after midnight, I was woken up to the sound of something greedily crunching on the apple. I peeked out and confirmed it was the tanuki from the moon-watching night. He looked even worse close up, poor guy.
So I named him Snarfy, because of the way he eats, and again I had a mission: to get this fellow healthy enough that he could hibernate safely.
So for about a month, every night I’d leave different delicacies out for him to eat–fruit, grilled fish, bread, rice, mini salads–I even saved some pieces of sushi for him once or twice. But the cutest thing was that he pretty much devoured everything with equal joy–everything except green peppers. Without fail, they would be picked from whatever dish they were in and flung off the plate. Then, after scarfing down everything else, Snarfy would neatly pile up those sad green peppers, sometimes even covering them with leaves or dirt. So he had manners, too.
He was also starting to gain a little weight. I couldn’t see his ribs anymore, which made me feel relieved because winter was just around the corner and it was starting to get cold at night.
I was getting brave in my tanuki-watching, not even hiding anymore, just watching. I didn’t think he even knew that I was up there looking down at him. But somewhere around the fourth or fifth week, after little Snarfy had licked the plate clean, he looked up at me. He rose up on his hind legs, and now I know you think this is crazy, but he made a little bow, like he was thanking me for the meals.
That’s when I decided to try another experiment. He always came at the same time, so the next night I decided not just to leave the food, but I sat out there, too. I made his favorite meal–fatty tuna sushi, a filet of grilled salmon with the skin and bones removed, and a handful of strawberries cut into fourths with a dollop of whipped cream on top. I expected him to be shy and I’d have to leave the plate and try again later, but to my surprise, Snarfy just marched right up and planted himself down in front of me. He gave a slight nod in recognition, then concentrated on eating everything off the plate I was holding in stunned silence. We were friends!
It gets better though. This continued for another week I’d say, when one day I was working with Richard on one of the episodes, and he asked if I’d ever heard of those dogs who can talk using the recordable buttons. Sure, I think I saw a video or two but he showed me a whole bunch more. If you haven’t seen them, I think you can search for “dog talk buttons” and they come up. Stella and Bunny I think are the two big influencers on Instagram now. They’re really adorable and really fascinating.
Okay, you can see where this is going, right? I mean Snarfy seemed super smart, smarter than your average raccoon dog, I’d say, so why not try?
By then I’d been sitting out there feeding him at one am for a couple weeks. He was perfectly comfortable with me. He even let me pet him and scratch his belly that was starting to get that tanuki paunch to it. I mean, there was nothing shy about this tanuki. So I bought a set of six buttons and after much thinking, decided to go for the six words that I thought he could easily pick up. Reading up on how other people trained their dogs, I learned that you should start with something that’s of high value to your pet. So while outside, hungry, potty, might work well for house hounds, not such a good start for an animal that lives outside, is always hungry, and relieves himself whenever and wherever he pleases.
But I did have a good idea, So I made some recordings and this is going to blow your mind. Have a listen to this:
Hey hey, today is day one of my big idea to use these plastic push buttons I bought online that I’ve already pre-recorded with set words and see if I can teach my tanuki friend how to communicate with me. I’m calling it Tanuki Buttons. I’m outside on my front porch. It’s after midnight and it’s almost time for Snarfy to appear. So right now I’ve got a plate of cut-up apples and another plate with green pepper chunks sitting in front of me. Okay, here he comes. Yeah, definitely used to me. He’s not shy at all. Hey Snarfy. Hey. Snarfy, look. Look, I have an apple.
No, wait, no, what are you doing? Don’t grab them all!
So today is day six of Tanuki Buttons and I’d rather not discuss days one through four. But yesterday was a breakthrough. First, let me just say that Snarfy absolutely lives up to his name, and I’ve since learned that if I put all the food in sealed containers when training him, it works because otherwise he just grabs everything right off the plate and gobbles it down. It’s a mess. He’s super smart, but I don’t think the concept of “wait for it” is in his DNA. Okay, so right now I have two Tupperware containers. One is filled with sliced apples and the other one with green peppers, or piman. And speak of the devil, here he comes! Hey boy! Snarfy! Hey there come on. Are you hungry? You’re looking kind of plump. That’s nice. Okay, so now if you. Stop, stop. Sit. Sit. Start. Okay. Wait. Okay. Snarfy, wait. Wait.
Good boy! Look at you! There you go. Here, have another one. Good boy. Okay, now I’m going to get out a piece of green pepper and let’s see what happens.
“Piman.” “Yummy.” “Hmmm?”
“Piman.” “Yuck.” “Apple.” “Please.”
What a good boy. You’re a genius. Here, have some more apple.
So that went on for over a month, again. And I just kept adding buttons. It wasn’t long before I had to buy a big board and fasten them to it so I could keep them in some kind of order that he could remember. Now Snarfy is smart, but he can’t read, so he knows the words from their position on the board. Then every time he learns a new word. I just fasten that one on.
Winter is coming.
Every night after we goodnighted it via button, I’d drag this big board inside. But eventually it was too cumbersome and too heavy. So since the porch is covered and my two neighbors said they weren’t woken up at all by any of these late-night escapades, I just decided to leave it out there. Except for the delivery person looking at me funny every time they delivered new buttons, it worked out well. I mean, I was this close to calling a tv station or a reporter or making some kind of Instagram or TikTok channel or something, but I was worried about what would happen to him if he got famous. I mean, we were really starting to communicate! Then it hit me. It was right before Christmas and it was getting quite cold outside when I realized that he hadn’t started hibernating yet, despite becoming like super Mr. Chonky and definitely able to survive the winter. Actually, it was an interesting conversation we had that reminded me that he was supposed to hibernate at all. Here let me play you that recording.
“Snarfy.” “Cold.” “Snarfy.” “Cold.” “Big.” “Cold.”
Oh my gosh oh that’s right! I totally forgot! You should be hibernating! Oh Snarfy, I’m sorry. Oh geez, I hope I didn’t have anything to do with messing up your seasonal clock. You’ve got to be freezing.
So that very night I found a bunch of old blankets and a pillow, and I made him a really cozy place to sleep in the shed that’s on the side of the house. I thought the whole setup was quite nice, actually, but Snarfy evidently didn’t. It lasted for three days before I was woken up in the middle of the night to someone chaotically pushing buttons on the porch. Snarfy was having a meltdown. I was half asleep when I looked out the window and looked down at him, and he looked so darn cute standing there on his hind legs with one blanket tied around him like a toga. He had a pillow under one arm pushing inside please, hmmm? inside please, hmmm? with his foot over and over.
Half worried he’d wake up my neighbors and half feeling guilty that I’m the reason he missed his hibernation date, I let him in the house. Which at first seemed like a good idea. I mean he did have manners, right? Anyway, I had a back room that I wasn’t using for anything, so I just put down this poly tarp that I had from my camping goods. You know, just in case of accidents. I had no idea how to housebreak a tanuki yet. I recreated the cool nest that I made in the shed and I even gave him a little nightlight and a bowl of water.
And I have to admit it was quite fun for about two or three weeks. It was like having a really goofball, slightly farty, always hungry roommate. We celebrated Christmas, the new year and life was kind of grand. But after the new year, things started to change. At the time I didn’t notice the shift or what was happening, but now in hindsight and going back and listening to what I had recorded then, there was a day when something really weird happened, and I think I should have taken that as a sign. Here, let me play that for you.
It starts going pear-shaped.
All right Snarfster. There you go, are you ready to eat? I made your favorite. Well, everything’s your favorite. Tonkatsu cutlet, big heaping pile of cabbage thinly sliced on the side, and here you go, here’s your miso soup, and it has been sufficiently cooled down for your delicate sensibilities. Use your chopsticks. There you go. Here’s your water. You know, I think we can graduate from the sippy cup pretty soon, don’t you think? Look what I found, Look at that. Back of the fridge. Not a big beer drinker, but I think I deserve this after today, don’t you? And if you don’t stop taunting our neighbors, I’m gonna have to get a leash or something. Anyway, I deserve this.
Hey Snarfy, cut it out, what are you doing?
“Snarfy.” “Big.” “Angry.” “Angry.” “Angry.” “Drink.” “Drink.”
Oh my God, how did you do that? And wait, no, of course, of course you can’t have any beer. You’re an animal!
So that’s how it started. I don’t know how he did it, but he changed one of the buttons to say beer! And that’s not all. It wasn’t long before this happened.
Tadaima. Snarfy, I’m home. Oi, Snarfy. Where are you-joly baloney. What did you do? Oh my god, you found the booze closet. I could tell exactly what you did. Oh my God, you made yourself one, two, three, four, five Negroni’s? Look at this, you’ve kicked the gin and the vermouth. That was expensive! My Noily Prat! There’s still some Campari left, I see. And oranges. Where did you get oranges? Wait a minute, are you taking a shower? How many showers do you take a day? Hey Snarfy! Snarfy! Oh my God, you’re soaking wet! Here, here, step out here, let me get a towel. What you don’t like towels? Here, just let me dry you…
The Beginning of the End
Hey, were you sleeping?
Well, usually I’m sleeping at 5:43 in the morning. But it’s okay, I had to wake up to answer the phone.
Oh, that’s good. Hey, at least you weren’t sleeping out on your porch last night.
Remember I told you about that tanuki?
Yeah, sparkles or something.
Snarfy. Uh, anyway, uh, we have a situation.
How soon can you get over here?
Um, ten minutes.
What the hell, did you get any sleep last night?
Hey, do you have your key?
A tanuki locked you out of your house?
Yeah, it’s not the half of it. Just open the door. God, I hope he’s still not mad.
Good God, it smells like a dive bar in here! Did he do all this? Can you turn that down? Where is that little rodent?
What, what he’s on the couch?
Nope, nothing on the couch but a bloated rat-shaped grease stain. Oh, of course, he’s in the toilet. Get out of there! You seem to be trailing a shoe comment there, buddy. Or a paw comment on your case. Oh, classy little bad boy aren’t you? Can you get him some pants? It’s bad enough he’s not shy about scratching his balls when he’s making eye contact.
Yeah, Snarfman doesn’t do pants. Believe me, I tried. And that eye contact thing? That’s his way of establishing dominance, so it’s best just to look away.
Oh yeah, real classy.
Hey, he has a sensitive tummy.
Oh Jesus Christ. Tell me that’s not mange.
He prefers to call it a skin condition, and we’re treating it with extra virgin olive oil rubs three times a day.
Is that skin condition contagious, kind of like mange is?
God, I hope not. I sleep there.
You sleep on the couch?
Yeah, since he’s put on a little weight he’s been sleeping in my bed. He says it’s better for his back.
Yeah, well, it looks like he gained most of his weight in his nutsack. Oh, shaken not stirred?
Hey, he’s been binge watching James Bond on Netflix. Kind of fancies himself a double naught spy.
Well I can see he’s turned into quite the lady killer. He’s got you wrapped around his finger.
Ah jeez, I almost forgot the umbrellas.
He likes his martinis with two umbrellas and three cocktail onions.
That makes it a gimlet, not a martini.
Shh, don’t correct him.
Jesus Christ, is this what he does all day? Drink gimlets and pop smoked quail eggs into his mouth, like his goddamn Caligula?
They’re martinis. And sometimes he lets me peel grapes and drop them into his mouth.
He lets you! He, he lets you? All right, first things first. We gotta turn this music off.
No don’t! Oh you’re gonna piss him off. Oh now you did it. Snarfykins, what are you looking for Oh, your buttons? I think they’re over here.
Oh, he knows my name?
Yeah he’s learned to control the buttons.
“Richaado.” “Go.” “Now.” “Bye-bye.” “Richaado.” “Stinky.”
I think he wants you to go.
Yeah, we both need to go. We need to find an animal control service that euthanises feral animals. Go grab your keys. I see them sticking out from the cushions.
“Leave.” “Now.” “Richaado.” “Go.”
Yeah, kiss my ass!
I love you Snarfy!
Will you just put your shoes on? We can talk about your Stockholm Syndrome in the car.
“Consider.” “Support us.” “Patreon.” “Hmmm?”
You’ve just reached the end of another episode of Uncanny Japan. Perhaps you’d like more. A monthly folktale, translated and retold by me, the occasional binaurally-miked soundscape, like the ones you hear on this show. Or recipes, behind the curtain episodes, homemade postcards, and more. If you’re interested in that or supporting the show in any way, please search for Uncanny Japan and Patreon. We’ve got a wonderful group over there. Thank you again for listening, supporting, reviewing, and telling your friends about the show. My name is Thersa Matsuura, and I will talk to you again soon.
Researched, written, directed, & produced: Thersa Matsuura
Mixed, edited, & sound engineered: Rich Pav
Voice of Terrie and Richard: Terrie and Richard
Voice of tanuki buttons: Julyan Ray
Sniffles, snorts, and chomps of tanuki: Alan Smithee
Foley: Richard and Terrie
That one line about Caligula: Joe Robson
Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura.
Atmospheres #9 – Outskirts Of Town by Brian Holtz Music
Mourning Background by MusicLFiles
Dawn Of The Apocalypse by Rafael Krux