Kitsune or Foxes are a very common subject in Japanese folklore. Let’s understand the significance of Kitsune Foxes In Japanese Culture
In every culture there are very interesting beliefs about animals like the wise old owl and the lazy pig. You see, these symbols become a very important part of any culture.
You can see a number of them in Japanese folklore. If you are fascinated with Japanese culture then I’m very sure you have come across the kitsune or the fox which play a vital role in Japanese culture.
Kitsunes are depicted as intelligent shapeshifters with magical abilities to either be malicious or benevolent depending on the situation. Some stories portray them as tricksters while others depict them as guardians.
The ambiguity of the fox makes it a very fascinating symbol in Japanese folklore, which can be seen even in pop culture too.
Importance Of Kitsune Foxes In Japanese Culture
What is Kitsune & what do they represent?
Kitsune or 狐 is the Japanese word for fox which are a very common subject in Japanese culture and folklore. According to urban legend, these foxes are intelligent creatures possessing magical abilities, which increase with wisdom and age.
Yōkai folklore says the kitsune have the ability to shapeshift into both men and women. The kitsune can be seen throughout Japanese culture, folklore and art. From shrines to temples to anime, they are scattered all over the country.
The duality of the kitsune as good and evil is very interesting, they are either associated with the Inari, (Shinto god of rice) or as highly-intelligent tricksters good at manipulating people for malevolent reasons.
Originally, the kitsune were the messengers of Inari which is exactly the reason we can see many shrines dedicated to them. They were viewed as a good luck symbol to ward off the evil spirits.
Types of Kitsune: Good Vs Evil
According to Japanese folklore, the kitsune become powerful and wiser as they age. The mightiest and strongest ones had nine tails due to its large number of tails and its ability to be skilled at magical arts and be highly intelligent.
A Nine-tailed fox in Japanese symbolizes a female shapeshifter, and is typically associated with young girls, beautiful females and old men.
A fox could be vengeful and mean or just right down caring and positive. It was difficult to differentiate between the good and evil ones. But one common way to tell them apart was by the sound they made.
While the good foxes made a kon-kon sound, the evil foxes made a kai-kai sound. The term Zenko is usually used only for good foxes and the term nogitsune is used for thoses foxes that are bad and deceive people.
Good Foxes: White, black and gold foxes were good characters and treated with respect, kindness and reverence. They were regarded as deities responsible for the harvest of fortune.
Bad foxes: Field foxes invoked fear, were mischievous and malicious who circled around the buddhist temples and cemeteries.They cast spells and brought about diseases and had the ability to cause illusions and possession.
The different kinds of kitsune were-
- Ginko (silver)
- Kokko (black)
- Tenko (heavenly)
- Bakemono ( evil and spectral fox)
- Koryo (cursed fox)
- Kuko (air foxes and considered very bad),
- Kitsune Bi ( power to invoke flames with mouth and tail)
- Reiko (ghost of a fox)
- Shakko( red and considered both good and bad)
- Kyuubi ( 900 years old with nine tails with great wisdom)
- Shouzaa ( superior of the foxes)
- Yako or Yakan (evil foxes)
The Powers of the Kitsune:
According to Japanese folklore, kitsune are powerful beings possessing powerful abilities. Besides being very intelligent and cunning, they are also skillful magicians.
Kitsune-Tsuki or Possession:
The term kitsune-tsuki or kitsunetsuki refers to the state of being possessed by a fox which is one of the signature abilities of a very powerful kitsune yokai.
It was believed to be done to young girls or maidens where the kitsune would enter their bodies through fingernails or between their breasts. After such a possession, they would develop a more elongated and slender shape and develop new abilities such as learning to read overnight.
Japanese girls with kitsune-gao or fox-faced features like narrow faces, closet-set eyes, high cheekbones, and thin eyebrows are considered exceptionally beautiful.
While some possessions are done with some malicious intent others are done according to Inari’s will.
Kitsunetsuki is a culture-bound syndrome in Japanese medicine for those who suffer possession by a fox.
The symptoms include cravings for sweet adzuki beans, rice, aversion to eye contact, restlessness and so on.
Shapeshifting or Transformation
This has to be one of the most powerful abilities by a more powerful and older kitsune which were believed to be over at least fifty to hundred years old and grows many tails to master this ability.
Shapeshifting is done with a benevolent goal to help teach someone a lesson or guide them.
They have the ability to transform into any human by placing some leaf, reeds or human skull on its head. Once they shapeshift, they take the form of a beautiful woman or girl but can also shapeshift into an old man or young boy too.
Hoshi No Tama or Magical Pearls
In most of the depictions or paintings of kitsune, there is a white ball in the kitsune mouth which is a magical pearl and source of their special powers given by Inari.
Some other myths say that the kitsune store their magic in these pearls when they possess or transform into people.
Fox fire or Kitsunebi
The kitsune are also the masters of fire and lightning where they create small flashes of light, fire or lightning to scare, attract or confuse people. It was mainly used as a mind-game tool, like any of the other kitsune abilities.
According to many myths, kitsune have magical abilities such as flying, invisibility, creating visual illusions and manifesting dreams and visions into people’s minds.
Kitsune in Modern Japanese Culture and Anime
The kitsune are regarded as one of the most famous Japanese mythological beings. As a result of that, kitsune foxes can be seen throughout Japan in various shrines, temples, manga, anime and video games.
Kitsune Anime & Manga:
- In Naruto, a powerful Nine-tails is one of the main sources of power for the main character.
- In Pokémon Vulpix (a fire kitsune) evolves into Ninetales.
- In Digimon, Kyuubimon was the champion form of Renamon.
- In the anime Yu Yu Hakusho, kitsune can be found.
- In Inuyasha, Shippo is a young fox demon.
- In One piece, Katarina Devon has devil fruit power turning her into a fox-human hybrid.
- Kamisama Hajimemashita is a romantic comedy anime with a kitsune protagonist.
- In the manga, Gugure kokkuri-san features several mythological kitsune and other creatures from Japanese folklore.
Kitsune in Video Games:
- Fire type pokemon Ninetails
- Zoroark, Illusion Fox Pokemon
- Crush Crush’s Suzu is a Kitsune
- In Wildworks’ Feral, one of the two starter avatars are kitsune
- In Genshin Impact, the character Yae Miko (Guuji Yae)
- In Okami, one of the main boss monsters is a kitsune called Ninetails
- In Sonic The Hedgehog, one of the playable characters ‘Miles Tails Prower’ is a kitsune.
Kitsune foxes in Japanese Culture: FAQs
What are some famous Kitsune artwork in Japan?
Kitsune were depicted as intricate hard case pouches called ‘inro’ that were hung from the belt of a pocketless kimono. Kitsune were also represented in a number of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings, one such talented artist that did this was Kansetsu Hashimoto. In his Inari fox painting nihonga style, he focuses on the Kitsune in its elegant form rather than its religious aspects.
Another talented artist is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi who also celebrated the fox in his works where he portrayed more mischievous incarnations of the kitsune.
What are some of the famous Kitsune depicted in literature?
Kitsune are also represented in many campfire stories which have been told for generations. To give a few examples: The Foxes’ Wedding, The Fox and the Tanuki ( adapted into a manga series), The Grateful Foxes and How Tokutaro Was Deluded by Foxes.
So, as you can see the Kitsune are popular mythical creatures of Japanese mythology, with so many myths surrounding them.
If you are wondering where you can see a Kitsune in Japan then you can visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine which is the birthplace of fox shrines in the country.
You will also get a wonderful view of kitsune statues all around the complex watching over its worshippers.
Another famous Shrine is the Toyokawa Inari where you can see thousands of miniature stone foxes wearing red bibs as a sign of their divinity with scrolls in their mouths symbolizing their roles as messengers of the gods.
However, if you would love to see these cute kitsune in the flesh, head on over to Zao Fox Village in Miyagi Prefecture where there are around hundred different species of foxes roaming about, you can feed them too.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Do comment on what other stories about the kitsune you hear about.