Japan is the uncontested champion of the cute animal mascot scene. Of course, there are the overseas hits like Hello Kitty and Pikachu, but one you might not be aware of is Rascal the Raccoon. This cuddly character is a perennial favorite in Japan, thanks to a popular anime series. In fact, he’s so prevalent that it’s almost impossible to get away from him — and this mass popularity has had unexpected and devastating consequences.
Despite being most popular in Japan, Rascal originated in the US — as a real animal. Author Sterling North first wrote about him in 1963’s Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, a children’s novel about North’s youth in Wisconsin. Cars and cities were taking the place of carriages and farmland, and Sterling was adrift without real family connections — his father distant, his mother dead, his brother off at war. Then he did what every kid dreams of and every parent dreads: he brought home a wild animal. Specifically, a baby raccoon, which he named Rascal and which seemed to be pretty all right at first.
Over the course of a year, Sterling regains connections with his family and community, largely with the help of Rascal’s antics. But as the raccoon grows up, it starts acting more like, you know, a wild animal. When it becomes clear that Rascal needs to return to nature, Sterling travels hours from home in a homemade canoe to release his best friend back into the wild.
The book was adapted into a Disney film in 1969 starring Bill Mumy, some eight years after his stint sending people to the cornfield in The Twilight Zone. Then it made its way to Japan in 1977, this time as a 52-episode anime series titled Rascal the Raccoon. And boy, was it a thing.
Bigger Than the Mouse
There is a long history of anime adaptations of Western stories and historical events. You can find anime series based on Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, the story of the Von Trapp family, and the collected works of Agatha Christie. But Rascal tapped into something that no other show has before or since. In the forty-odd years since Rascal aired, love of the series and the book that inspired it hasn’t waned. If anything, the raccoon’s popularity just seems to keep growing. There was even an art exhibition for the 30th anniversary of the anime, where the actual canoe paddle from Sterling North’s canoe was on display.
Over time, Rascal’s design has lost what realism it had in the anime. He’s gotten more compact and become rounder and more bipedal, in an almost Garfield-esque progression. Now as a perfectly marketable mascot, you can see him everywhere. Like, literally everywhere. In the past few years alone he’s done crossovers with big-hitter series like Demon Slayer and Attack on Titan, had his own cafés and pop-up shops, and collaborated with the merch queen herself, Hello Kitty. There was a time when Rascal even outranked Mickey Mouse as Japan’s most-loved cartoon critter.
But with that popularity came some unfortunate decisions — of a kind that, funnily enough, flew right in the face of Sterling North’s original story.
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The Rascal Invasion
For better or for worse, cute animals in media will tend to inspire people to want to bring them home as pets. 1995’s Babe saw an upswing in the desire for border collies, and the Shibe Doge meme of recent years had internet users everywhere wishing for Shiba Inu as pets. The down side of this is that said media rarely elaborates on what these animals are actually like.
In the case of Rascal, the entirety of the tearjerker ending stemmed from just what a bad idea it is to keep raccoons as pets. But that didn’t stop viewers from importing North American raccoons of their very own. And it went about as well as you’d expect.
While pet raccoons are not unheard of, their destructive and unpredictable nature means that the tame individuals are exceptions to the rule. Even so, Japanese families enamored with Sterling’s Rascal brought raccoons into their homes, and either promptly let them back out again when they realized how rambunctious they could be or simply watched them run off into the night. (Maybe some even built canoes and took them out into the forest for heartfelt goodbyes.) At the height of the trend, up to 1,500 raccoons were being brought into Japan per year.
Even in North America, raccoons are considered an invasive species — but in Japan, they went to town in a big new way. They were present in 17 of Japan’s 47 prefectures by the year 2000, and by 2008 they were spotted in all 47. They’ve caused their fair share of trouble, too: about $275,000 worth of agricultural damage in Hokkaido alone. And four out of five Japanese temples have suffered damage at their agile little hands.
Despite the trouble his real-life brethren have caused, Rascal continues to be a beloved character across Japan. I mean, just look at that face! Real raccoons might chew up your homes, but this boy never would. Let the plight of Rascal Mania be a lesson, though: raccoons aren’t pets. Just let them do their thing, and if you’re overwhelmed by the urge to hug one of these little dog-cats, maybe buy a Rascal doll instead.