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In Japan, the term kitsune (狐?) refers to the fox, as well as a character in Japanese folklore, a supernatural spirit (yōkai), a polymorphous animal, much like the tanuki (狸?, raccoon dog). The kitsune has often been associated with Inari, a Shinto deity, as its messenger.
It is widely accepted that the trail of many Japanese fox myths can be traced back to China, Korea or India. Chinese folktales tell of fox spirits named huli jing, which can have up to nine tails, Kyūbi no kitsune in Japanese, or Hồ Li Tinh (vi) in Vietnamese. The earliest surviving stories are compiled in the Konjaku Monogatari, a collection of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese texts dating from the tenth century.
There is some debate about the origins of the kitsune myths, whether they originate entirely from foreign sources or whether they derive from an indigenous Japanese concept dating from the fifth century B.C.
Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese viewed kitsune positively as early as the fourth century A.D.; the only elements imported from China or Korea were the negative attributes of kitsune. He asserted that, according to one recollection of the Japanese, kitsune were not a part of the Japanese culture.
He claimed that, according to a sixteenth-century collection called the Nihon Ryakki, foxes and humans lived side by side in ancient Japan, and he argues that indigenous legends about the creatures emerged later.
Scholar Karen Smyers notes that the idea of a seductive fox and the connection between fox myths and Buddhism were introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese stories, but she maintains that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japan.
The true etymology of kitsune (狐?) is still unknown and has spawned several theories. But the term appears in a 794 text, Shin'yaku Kegonkyō Ongi Shiki, the oldest surviving ongi.
Other early sources include the Nihon Ryōiki (810-824) and the Wamyō ruijushō (c. 934). The oldest sources are written in man'yōgana, which the Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai clearly identifies as ki tune.
Among the etymological suggestions that have not achieved general consensus are:
According to Nozaki, the word kitsune was originally an onomatopoeia. Kitsu represented the yelp of the fox and became the general word for "fox"; -ne would mean an affectionate mood, which Nozaki presents as further evidence of an established and unimported tradition of benevolent foxes in Japanese folklore.
Kitsu is currently archaic; in modern Japanese, the fox's yelp is transcribed as kon-kon or gon-gon.
One of the oldest known kitsune stories comes from a widely known folk etymology of the word kitsune. Unlike most stories of kitsune becoming human and marrying humans, this one, according to an ancient Japanese legend from 545 AD, does not end tragically:
"Ono, an inhabitant of Mino, spent his time thinking about his ideal of female beauty. He met her one evening on a vast moor and married her. At the same time she gave birth to their son, Ono's dog gave birth to a puppy that grew more and more hostile to the lady of the moor. She begged her husband to kill it, but he refused.
Finally, one day, the dog attacked her so furiously that she lost her courage, reverted to her vulpine form, jumped the fence and ran away. "You may be a fox," Ono called after her, "but you are the mother of my son and I love you. Come back any time; you will always be welcome." And so, every night, she returned and slept in his arms."
Because the fox returns to her husband each night as a woman and leaves each morning as a fox, she is called kitsune. In classical Japanese, kitsu-ne means "comes and sleeps", and ki-tsune means "always comes".
The kitsune are said to possess superior intelligence, long life, and magical powers. They are a type of yōkai or spirit entity, and the word kitsune is often translated as "fox spirit." However, this does not mean that kitsune are ghosts, nor that they are fundamentally different from normal foxes. Because the word "spirit" is used to reflect a state of knowledge or enlightenment, throughout their long lives foxes gain supernatural abilities.
There are two common classifications of kitsune. The zenko (善狐?, literally "good foxes") are benevolent celestial foxes, associated with the god Inari; they are sometimes simply called "Inari's foxes." On the other side, yako (野狐?, literally "field foxes"), also called nogitsune (野狐?) tend to be mischievous or even malicious. Local traditions add other types.
For example, a ninko is an invisible fox spirit that humans can only perceive when it possesses them. Another tradition classifies kitsune into one of thirteen types defined by the supernatural abilities possessed by the kitsune.
Physically, kitsune are known to have up to nine tails. Generally, a large number of tails indicates an older, more powerful fox; in fact, some folk tales say that the fox will only have extra tails when it is over 100 years old.
One, five, seven, nine tails are the most common numbers in folk stories. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, its fur turns white or golden. These nine-tailed foxes (九尾の狐, kyūbi no kitsune?) gain the ability to see and hear what happens anywhere in the world. Other accounts attribute infinite wisdom (omniscience) to them.
A kitsune can take on human form, an ability learned when it reaches a certain age: usually 100 years, though some accounts say 50 years. The common prerequisite for the transformation is that the fox must place a reed, large leaf, or skull on its head.
Common forms taken by the kitsune include beautiful women, young girls, or old men. These forms are not limited by the age or gender of the fox, and a kitsune can disguise itself in the guise of a specific person.
Foxes are particularly known for impersonating beautiful women. The common belief in medieval Japan was that any single woman encountered especially at dusk or night could be a fox. Kitsune-gao, or "fox face," refers to women who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones.
Traditionally, this facial structure is considered attractive, and some stories attribute it to foxes in human form. Variations on this theme feature foxes with other Vulpine features, such as a thin coat, a fox-like shadow, or a reflection that shows its true form.
In some stories, kitsune have difficulty hiding their tails when they take human form; looking for a tail, when the fox is drunk or not paying attention, is a common method of discerning their true nature. A particularly religious individual can even see through the fox's disguise.
The kitsune may also be exposed when in human form by their fear and hatred of dogs, and some become so disturbed by their presence that they assume the form of a fox and run away.
A popular story illustrating these imperfections of the human form of the kitsune concerns Koan, a historical figure credited with wisdom and magical powers of divination. According to the story, he was staying at the home of one of his followers when he scalded his foot while getting into the bath because the water was too hot.
Then, "in pain, he ran out of the bath naked. When the people in the house saw him, they were astonished to see that Koan's body was mostly covered with fur, and his tail was like a fox. Then Koan transformed himself in front of them, becoming an elderly fox and ran away.
Other supernatural abilities commonly attributed to kitsune include possession, a mouth or tails that generate fire or lightning (known as kitsunebi, "fox fire"), appearances in the dreams of others, flight, invisibility, and the creation of illusions so elaborate that they are difficult to distinguish from reality.
Some stories tell of kitsune with great powers, capable of twisting space-time, driving people mad, or taking on fantastic forms such as a tree of incredible height or a second moon in the sky. Other kitsune have reminiscences characteristic of vampires or succubi, and feed on the life or spirit of human beings, usually through sexual contact.
Kitsunetsuki (狐憑き, 狐付き?, also written kitsune-tsuki) literally means the "state of being possessed by a fox". The victim is always a young woman, the fox has entered her by passing under her fingernails or through her chest.
In some cases, the victim's facial expressions would change to resemble those of a fox. Japanese tradition holds that possession of the fox can enable illiterate victims to gain the ability to read.
Although foxes in folklore can possess a person of their own volition, kitsunetsuki can also be done through invocation; possession can then affect a person, an entire family where it is then kept as a familiar (the family is then called tsukimono-tsuji or tsukimono-tsukai) or a medium for cases of divination.
Family possession can also be involuntary and hereditary, resulting from the evil intentions of a member who has resorted to possession.
Families with a familiar (or tsukimono) enjoy great wealth and prosperity, while those with whom they are in conflict are struck by ruin and illness. For this reason, these families were feared and found themselves entirely ostracized.
The folklorist Lafcadio Hearn describes this state of possession in the first volume of his "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan":
"Strange is the madness of those into whom the fox demons enter. Sometimes they run naked and scream in the streets. Sometimes they lie down, foaming at the mouth, and utter fox-like yelps. And on certain parts of the body of the possessed, a mobile ball appears under their skin, which seems to have a life of its own.
If one pricks it with a needle, it instantly slides to another place. There is no grip that allows a strong hand to squeeze it without it slipping out from under the fingers. It is also said that possessed people can speak and write in languages of which they were totally ignorant before the possession.
They only eat what foxes are thought to like - such as tofu, aburaage, azukimeshi, etc. - and they eat a lot claiming that the foxes like it. - They eat only what foxes are thought to like - such as tofu, aburaage, azukimeshi, etc. - and they eat a lot, claiming that it is not they, but the fox, that is hungry.
He goes on to state that once freed from possession, the victim will never again be able to eat tofu, azukimeshi, or other favorite fox foods:
"Exorcism, often performed at an Inari shrine, can cause the fox to leave its host. In the past, when such gentle measures failed or no priest was available, victims of kitsunetsuki were beaten or severely burned in the hope of forcing the fox to leave. Entire families have been ostracized by their communities after a family member was suspected of being possessed."
In Japan, kitsunetsuki was recognized as an illness as early as the Heian period and remained a common diagnosis for mental illness until the early twentieth century. Possession was the explanation for the abnormal behavior of individuals afflicted with it.
In the late nineteenth century, Dr. Shunichi Shimamura noted that physical illnesses causing fever were often considered to be kitsunetsuki. This belief has fallen into disuse, but stories of possession by a fox still occur, such as allegations that members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult were possessed.
In medicine, kitsunetsuki is a culture-related syndrome found only in Japanese culture. Sufferers believe they are possessed by a fox. Symptoms include cravings for sweet rice or asukimeshi, apathy, restlessness and aversion to eye-to-eye contact. Kitsunetsuki is similar but distinct from clinical lycanthropy.
Depictions of the kitsune, or their possessed victims, may feature round or onion-shaped white balls, known as hoshi no tama (ほしのたま?, "star balls"). Stories describe them as glowing from kitsunebi ("fox fire"). Some stories identify them as jewels or magic beads.
When not in human form or possessing a human, a kitsune holds the ball in its mouth or wears it on its tail. Jewels are a common symbol of Inari, and depictions of the sacred foxes of Inari without them are rare.
One belief is that when a kitsune changes form, its hoshi no tama retains a portion of its magical power. Another tradition says that the pearl represents the soul of the kitsune; the kitsune will die if it is separated from it for too long. Those who obtain the ball may be able to demand a promise from the kitsune in exchange for its return. For example, a twelfth-century account describes a man using a fox's hoshi no tama to obtain a favor:
"Found it!" yelped the fox. "Give me back my ball!" The man ignored his request until he said tearfully, "Okay, you have the ball, but you don't know how to keep it. It won't be good for you. For me it is a terrible loss, if you don't give it back I will be your enemy forever. If you give it back, however, I will be to you like a protective god."
Later, the fox saves his life by leading him away from a band of armed robbers.
The kitsune are associated with Inari, the Shinto deity of Rice . This association has reinforced the supernatural importance of the fox. Originally, the kitsune were Inari's messengers, but the line between the two is now so blurred that Inari himself is depicted as a fox. In addition, entire shrines are dedicated to the kitsune, where worshippers can leave offerings.
Fox spirits are said to be particularly fond of fried tofu, called aburaage, which is used in the noodle dishes kitsune udon and kitsune soba. Similarly, Inari-zushi is a type of sushi named after Inari, which consists of pockets of fried tofu filled with rice. There is speculation among folklorists that another Shinto fox deity existed in the past. Foxes have long been worshipped as kami.
The kitsune of Inari are white, an auspicious color . They possess the power to protect from evil, and they sometimes serve as guardian spirits. In addition to protecting Inari shrines, they are empowered to intervene on behalf of the peasants and to help them especially against the nogitsune, fox spirits who do not serve Inari and who cause problems. Black foxes and nine-tailed foxes are also considered auspicious.
According to beliefs derived from fusui (feng shui), the power of foxes over evil is such that a single fox statue can dispel the demonic kimon, or energy, that comes from the northeast. Many Inari shrines, such as Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, have such statues, and some places have large numbers of them.
The kitsune are linked to the Buddhist religion by the dakiniten, goddesses confused with the female aspect of Inari. The dakiniten is depicted as a female bodhisattva holding a sword and riding a flying white fox.
The kitsune are often depicted as pranksters, whose motives range from malice to spite. Stories tell of kitsune playing tricks on overly proud samurai, greedy merchants, and boastful commoners, while the most cruel ones abuse poor merchants and farmers, or devout Buddhist monks. Their victims are usually men; women are more likely to be possessed.
For example, the kitsune would use their kitsunebi to lead travelers astray in the manner of a will-o'-the-wisp. Another tactic is for the kitsune to use their kitsunebi as a way to lure travelers to their destination. Another tactic is for the kitsune to confuse their victim through illusions and visions. Other goals of prank kitsune include seduction, stealing food, humiliating the proud, or getting revenge for too little perceived.
A traditional game called kitsune-ken ("fox-fist") refers to the powers of the kitsune over human beings. The game is similar to rock-paper-scissors, but the three hand positions signify a fox, a hunter and the village chief.
The chief beats the hunter he overtakes, the hunter beats the fox he shoots, the fox beats the chief he bewitches. This ambiguous representation, coupled with the fact that the fox is a fox, is the only way to make the chief feel like a fox.
This ambiguous representation, coupled with their reputation for vengeance, leads people to try to discover the motivations of the problematic fox. In one instance, in the sixteenth century, the daimio Toyotomi Hideyoshi wrote a letter to the kami Inari:
"To Inari Daimyojin,
My lord, I have the honor of informing you that one of the foxes under your jurisdiction has bewitched one of my servants, causing him and the others many problems. I must ask you to investigate the matter thoroughly, and endeavor to discover the reason for your subject's misconduct, and let me know the result.
If it turns out that the fox does not have sufficient reasons for his behavior, you must both arrest and punish him. If you hesitate to act, I will order the destruction of all foxes in this land. For any other information you may wish to know about what has happened, you may learn it from the high priest of Yoshida.
Kitsune keep their promises and strive to repay favors. Occasionally, a kitsune will attach itself to a person or a house, where it can cause all sorts of mischief. In a story from the tenth century, only the owner's threat to exterminate the foxes convinced them to behave. The patriarch of the kitsune appeared in the man's dreams:
"My father lived here before me, sir, and now I have many children and grandchildren. They have caused many mischief, I am afraid, and I am always after them to stop them, but they never listen. And now, my lord, of course you have had enough of us. I understand that you are going to kill us all. But I just want you to know, sir, how sorry I am that this is the last night of our lives.
Will you not forgive us once again? If we ever cause you trouble again, then of course you can act as you think best. But the young people - I'm "sure" they will understand when I explain to them why you are so angry. We will do everything we can to protect you from now on, if only you will forgive us, and we will inform you if anything good happens!"
Other kitsune use their magic for the benefit of their mate or hosts as long as humans treat them with respect. As yōkai, however, kitsune do not share human morality, and a kitsune who was adopted into a home in this way might, for example, bring their hosts money or items that they stole from neighbors. As a result, ordinary households thought that housing a kitsune might cause them problems.
Strangely, samurai families are often known to share such arrangements with kitsune, but these foxes are considered zenko and the use of their magic is a sign of prestige. Abandoned houses are usually haunted by kitsune18. A story from the eleventh century tells of a minister moving into an old house and finding a family of foxes living there.
At first they tried to frighten him away, then they claimed that the house "has been theirs for so many years, and ... [they wish] to protest vigorously. The man refused, and the foxes left and moved to an abandoned building nearby.
The accounts distinguish between kitsune gifts and kitsune payments. If a kitsune offers a payment or reward that includes money or material wealth, a portion of the entire sum will consist of waste paper, leaves, twigs, stones, or other worthless objects caught in a magical illusion.
True kitsune gifts are usually made in the form of money or material wealth. The true gifts of the kitsune are usually intangible such as protection, knowledge, or long life.
The kitsune are usually portrayed as lovers, usually the stories involve a young man and a kitsune who takes the form of a human woman. The kitsune may be a seductress, but these stories are often more romantic. The kitsune may be a seductress, but these stories are often more romantic. Typically, the young man unknowingly marries a fox, and the fox turns out to be a devoted wife.
The man eventually discovers the fox's true nature, and the fox-wife is forced to leave him. In some cases, the husband wakes up as if from a dream, dirty, disoriented and far from home. He then has to return to face his abandoned family in shame.
There are many stories of fox-women bearing children. When the offspring is human, she possesses supernatural or physical qualities that she passes on to her own children. The astrologer-magician Abe no Seimei is said to have inherited such extraordinary powers.
Other stories tell of kitsune intermarrying. Rain falling from a blue sky is called kitsune no yomeiri (en) or "marriage of the kitsune", in reference to a popular story describing a marriage ceremony between creatures held under such conditions . The event is considered auspicious, but the kitsune will seek revenge against uninvited visitors, as depicted in Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams.
Stephen Turnbull, in Nagashino 1575, relates the story of the Takeda clan's involvement with a fox-woman. The Takeda warlord Shingen, in 1544, defeated in battle the local warlord named Suwa Yorishige and drove him to suicide after a "humiliating and disingenuous" peace conference, whereupon Shingen forced Lady Koi, Suwa Yorishige's eldest daughter and Shingen's own 14-year-old niece, to marry him.
Turnbull writes, "Shingen was so obsessed with the girl that his followers became alarmed and believed that she was the incarnation of a white fox spirit from Suwa's shrine, who had bewitched her in order to take revenge."
When their son Takeda Katsuyori proved to be a disastrous leader and led the clan to a devastating defeat at the battle of Nagashino, Turnbull notes, "The wise old heads nodded, remembering the unfortunate circumstances of his birth and his magical mother.
In modern popular culture, they can also manifest themselves in the dream world, create illusions, bend space and time, drive people mad, dispel illusions, control people's souls and minds, and transform themselves.
They are currently found in manga and other elements of Japanese culture.