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What Does the Japanese Fox Say – A Look at Foxes in Japanese Folklore and Popular Culture

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/15 Animal, Pop Culture & OTAKU, Traditional Culture , ,

Popular manga titles Naruto, YuYu Hakusho, and Inuyasha has one thing in common – they have characters depicting a fox or in Japanese, kitsune (キツネ). The fox (esp. the species Vulpes vulpes) is a common topic in Japanese myths and legends. They are intelligent beings and possess magical abilities. The most common of these abilities is the ability to transform or disguise as humans. While sometimes portrayed as tricksters, tricking other human and animals, some stories speak of them as faithful guardians.

Inari, the Fox Diety

It is believed that in ancient Japan, foxes lived close together with humans. It gave rise to different stories and legends. Foxes have become particularly associated with the Japanese deity Inari. The foxes served as Inari’s messengers. Inari is regarded as the deity of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and sake (Japanese rice wine), of agriculture and industry, and of general prosperity and worldly success. There are numerous shrines and temples dedicated to Inari across Japan with its head Shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha located in Fushimi, Kyoto. An Inari shrine can be easily distinguished because of numerous fox statues at the gate and inside the premises.

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Some of the fox statues found inside the Fushimi Inari-taisha.

Kitsune Abilities and Powers According Japanese Folklore

As portrayed in several Japanese folklore, foxes have superior intelligence and magical abilities. Because of this, though they are not ghosts, foxes (kitsune) are considered as yōkai and the word kitsune is sometimes translated as fox spirit. There are two common classifications of the Japanese fox: zenko (善狐 lit. good fox) and yako or nogitsune (野狐lit. field fox). The zenko are the ones associated with Inari while the yako tends to be malevolent foxes. Another tradition classifies kitsune into what supernatural ability they possess: kaze (wind), chikyu (Earth), kasai (fire) kawa (river), tengoku, (heaven), kaminari (thunder), yama (mountain), kukan (void), seishin (spirit), jikan (time), mori (forest), umi (ocean), and ongaku (music). Ever heard of Eevee in the popular franchise Pokemon? Some people believed it is based on the kitsune. It can evolve into different types (fire, water, etc.) depending on the circumstances.

Kitsune are also illustrated as having many tails. The greater the tails, the more powerful and intelligent the kitsune is. The nine-tailed fox is the most powerful and gain the ability to see and hear everything happening anywhere in the world. In popular culture, Kurama, the nine-tailed fox, in the manga Naruto is the most powerful among the tailed-beasts.

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Kurama, the nine-tailed fox, is believed to be the most powerful among the tailed beasts in the popular manga Naruto. (Image by Melissa_1995 on Flickr)

Kitsune’s Human Transformation

A kitsune can also gain the ability to disguised as a human through ages. As a common prerequisite to the transformation, the fox must place reeds, a broad leaf, or a skull above its head. Kin’emon in the hit manga One Piece has its power based on this fox’s ability: disguise himself or anyone by putting a stone or leaf on the head.

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A kitsune preparing to transform by placing a leaf above its head. (Image from AC-Illust)

More stories and legends about kitsune will be featured in the next post.

References:

1. Kitsune. Wikipedia.

2. Kitsune: The Real and Fantastic Japanese Fox. Tofugu.

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