By Crystal Morey
This was a really difficult write-up for me because there is so much information and such a wealth of folklore surrounding these creatures, it is quite overwhelming. In Japanese Kitsune means fox. Foxes play a huge role in Japanese mythology -they are both loved and feared by the Japanese people. Foxes, by their very nature, are perceived as sneaky and cunning. Though not always malicious they are generally not to be trusted, and they appear in folklore worldwide as the antagonist…
The Kitsune of Japan can be divided into two types. Kami or Spirit Kitsune, which are considered benevolent beings who serve as messenger to Inari, the Shinto spirit for rice and agriculture. As rice was the main currency in Japan for much of its inception, it is sacred, and homage is paid to Inari in hopes of fertility and prosperity in the form of bountiful harvests. These messenger Kitsunes are white and are called Myobu. Shrines devoted to Inari feature a red torii gate and two white foxes standing guard.
The second type of Kitsune, and the ones we will be focusing on are the Nogitsune or wild fox. The tricksters. These Kitsunes are considered yokai or evil spirits, and they are treated with caution in Japanese culture. The Nogitsune are not all malicious, but they do not filter the world through the traditional human lens of good and evil.
They do not even have a communal code of right and wrong; like humans you find Nogitsune that are benevolent and attempt to assist those in their immediate vicinity, and others that are just malicious and thrive on causing mayhem. It should be noted that mortals who are being plagued by Nogitsune, often appeal to the Myobu for assistance. While they are hard to stereotype, it must be noted that Kitsune do adhere to a code of ethics, albeit according to their own unique standards, and they are staunch defenders of this code.
Kitsune tales run rampant throughout Japanese mythology. Through tricks and magic they expose human flaws, often by encouraging it to the point of calamity. They are passionate about “outing” people who fall short of their ethical standards, for Nogitsune this is sport. Similarly, if a Kitsune is shown compassion, they return the favor ten-fold. They assist in harvests, save dying children at great personal sacrifice and sometimes serve as protectors to individuals they deem worthy. Kitsune are playful pranksters, but they are sensitive and emotional as well. They hold their own actions under close scrutiny and if one commits an unjust act, its own shame and regret can cause such self-loathing that it will perish.
Kitsune are believed to live 900 years on this earth before joining the celestial court. As a yokai they become more powerful with the passing of each 100 years and they are given another tail to mark each passing. (Some legends intimate that they sprout all nine tails when they become 900 years old). The tails are considered marks of prestige and rank and can actually be rewarded to a Kitsune for a great deed or taken from it for a breach of Kitsune law or by getting themselves killed. Kitsune are said to be able to start fires by rubbing their tails together. Often they are depicted with Kitsune-bi or “fox-fire” floating around them… with balls of white light surrounded by glowing flames.
There is also, in some stories, a ball (Hoshi no Tama) that is believed to either hold part of the Kitsune’s spirit, making it vulnerable to anyone who manages to gain possession of it, or hold a portion of its power, enabling the Kitsune to possess mortals. If separated from its ball for an extended period of time, a Kitsune will perish.
Kitsune are always given feminine attributes and among their litany of powers they are considered gifted shape-shifters, with the ability to transform into anything found in nature. To transform, it is said, a Kitsune must place reeds, a broad leaf or a skull over its head. They most often appear as a beautiful and amorous young lady, who then either expose a lustful or adulterous man to his peers, or reward a virtuous one by becoming his paramour. Kitsune can possess mortals and many ill deeds throughout Japanese history, including the gassing of the Tokyo subway by the infamous Aum Cult, have been attributed to kitsunetsuki or fox possession.
Nine tailed foxes (Kyubi no Kitsune) are the oldest and most powerful Kitsune. They are white, silver or gold in color and are believed omnipotent -so great is their power. These powerful creatures, again, do not always use their strengths for the betterment of humankind. Some Kyubi no Kitsune are just plain evil. The most infamous is Tamamo-no-mae, who throughout her lifespan managed to infiltrate the imperial courts of India, China and Japan and wreak havoc.
She brought about the destruction of the king of India, killing thousands of his subjects before fleeing to China where she was responsible for the fall of the Chou Dynasty, only to reappear later in Japan as a courtesan of Emperor Konoe where her wisdom and beauty became legend. She bewitched the emperor and when discovered, is rumored to have fled to the plains of Nasu where she was finally trapped and shot with an arrow. Her spirit transformed into a rock, now called Sessho-Seki, the killing rock, because it killed any living creature that came in contact with it, so powerful was her evil. Her spirit was eventually exorcised by a traveling Buddhist priest named Genno… but the infamous rock still stands in Nasu, and is given wide berth.
The Kyubi no Kitsune is another one of the creatures featured in our upcoming book Japanese Mythical Creatures. The book is with the layout crew now and will be available at the end of the year. I’m stoked since it’s been almost three years in the making!
*Author’s Note: My favorite collection on Kitsune stories in English is long out of print but apparently it can be downloaded in its entirety here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/3870634/Kitsune-Japans-Fox-of-Mystery-Romance-and-Humor-by-Kiyoshi-Nozaki