The Dōbutsuen: KitsunePosted: 13 January 2011
One part of Japanese folklore which fascinates me in particular is the symbolic significance of animals in Japan, which I’ll be exploring in the next few posts. I chose the title Dōbutsuen [動物園], which in Japanese means zoo.
The fox, or kitsune, is a prolific animal in Japanese culture and found in many stories. Kitsune are intelligent beings and become wiser and more powerful with age. They are also said to have magical abilities, and at an advanced age, the ability to appear human at will. You can tell how old and powerful a kitsune is by counting its tails; they can have as many as nine!
Foxes are worshipped in Japan as the sacred messengers of Inari, the Shintō god of rice and business. At Inari shrines you will find statues of kitsune; such as at the main Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto which is famous for its long passageways of red torii gates. The statues are often painted white to denote holiness and decorated with a jewel to represent their hoshi no tama [ほしのたま], the ‘star ball’ which is their source of power or soul. Kitsune may be tricked into offering protection or guidance if separated from it.
Kitsune are said to be fond of a certain type of fried and sliced tofu called aburage. Dishes containing this are often given as offerings to curry favour with the influential and powerful messengers of Inari. There is even a particular type of sushi called Inarizushi, which consists of rice stuffed into a pouch made of tofu (and is delicious!).
In some tales the kitsune is a prankster who enjoys fooling humans into believing he or she is one of them; for its own ends, or out of sheer amusement. These pranks are often harmless, but sometimes can be malicious. Male kitsune are particularly renowned for impregnating innocent women then disappearing at dawn. In medieval Japan you would be told to beware the beautiful woman encountered alone at dusk; for she is almost certainly a fox.
Kitsune are even able to change their appearance to look exactly like a specific person; however, in most stories they are spotted by their inability to hide their identity when drunk or otherwise caught off-guard.
One such story tells of a renowned seer and fortune-teller named Koan, who had become rich and powerful due to his uncannily accurate gift of sight. He had a splendid house and many servants. When taking a bath one evening, the water was so hot that it scalded his foot. Jumping out of the bath in shock and pain, Koan’s true identity was revealed; his body was covered in fur and he had a fox’s tail.
Another tale is one of the oldest kitsune stories still remembered in Japan. A man longed for a beautiful wife with all of his being, but to his despair he remained alone. One evening just before nightfall he was making a journey across the moor, when he met the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. He fell deeply in love with her and she with him, so he took the lady back to his home town. They were married and she became pregnant with his first child.
It was not long before she gave birth to his firstborn son, who was just as beautiful as his mother. However, trouble soon came to the happy family. The man’s dog had also given birth at the same time; to a single pup, who at once took exception to the lady and attacked her whenever it could. As the dog grew it became more vicious. The lady begged her husband to kill the dog as she feared it would kill her. The man refused however, as he also loved his dogs.
At last the day came when the dog attacked the lady of the moors so furiously that she lost hope and changed back into her true shape; a fox. Weeping, she jumped over the fence and fled into the wilderness in shame before her husband could catch her.
Distraught, he called after her, “You may be a fox, but you are the mother of my son and I love you.”
Knowing now the reason his dog attacked his wife (for dogs and foxes are mortal enemies), the man tied up his dogs at nightfall. And every evening he did so, his beloved wife returned to him.
Thus she was named ‘kitsu-ne’ which means, ‘to come and sleep’.
Picture credit: From the Hokusai manga and credited to Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)