Alternative Spellings: 狐狸精, 狐, きつね
Alternative Names: Kitsune-Tsuki
Hailing from the island nation of Japan or Nihon comes the mystical and mischievous kitsune! Stories of fox spirits or kitsune are rather common and popular and feature in a good number of manga, anime, and video games. So much so they have even become a popular staple even in Western literature and stories. The mystical, shape-shifting kitsune are seen as akin and like the stories of European faeries. One can usually tell if they’re dealing with a kitsune spirit or yokai rather than an ordinary fox by the number of tails that they have. The number of tails can denote a kitsune’s age and thus the wisdom and magical powers they’re reputed to possess.
What’s In A Name
The Japanese or Nihonjin word for fox is kitsune. Now, depending on how the word is used and the context in which it is used, with emphasis on the syllables and vowels, kitsune can refer to an ordinary animal or the supernatural fox entity.
A fun thing to discover and note is that the usage of the word spirit, when it comes from an Eastern meaning, refers to a state of knowledge or enlightenment. When we look at Japan, they have a lot of stories about animals and even objects that when they gain a certain age, become sentient and powerful. Some will become yokai or monsters and others are more benevolent. Focusing on the fox spirits, there are two types of kitsune, the myobu or the celestial fox who are associated with Inari or there are the nogitsune, the wild foxes are far more unpredictable and malicious in their tricks and antics.
For the ordinary animal, there is the Red Fox and the Hondo Kitsune found in Japan and both lend a paw and inspiration to the spirit, mystical foxes.
While it is easy enough to give a fairly direct translation of kitsune into English, there is more to the word. Some of the etymological suggestions for the word seem contradictory among various scholars. Nozaki says that kitsune is an onomatopoeia for the sound that a fox makes when it cries seen in the word “kitsu” and that the last part “ne” is an affix for an honorific. In this respect, kitsu is an archaic word for a fox’s cry and modern Japanese words used are kon kon or gon gon. Interestingly enough, I have found that kitsu also means “come here.”
Other etymologies are from Myogoki in 1268 who says that kitsune comes from the words “tsune” or “always” and “ki” or “yellow.” Arai Hakuseki in Toga, 1717 says that “ki” means “stench” and “tsu” is a possessive part and “ne” as in “inu” for “dog.” Then there is Kotosuga in Wakun no Shiori (1777-1887) who agrees about “ki” meaning “yellow,” “tsu” is still a possessive part and “ne” is from neko, for cat.
In the numerous folktales told of kitsune, these are foxes that are intelligent and hold great magical or mystical powers. This power only increases as the fox gets older. When a kitsune becomes old enough, sometimes 50 years of age, other stories say 100 years, a kitsune gains or learns the ability to transform into a human. Frequently, it is a female kitsune who will transform into a young human woman. In this guise, the kitsune is sometimes portrayed as a lover or wife until she is discovered and the kitsune runs away back to the wilds in its fox form. Other times the kitsune acts as a protector or guardian. Because of the kitsune’s power and abilities, some people would make offerings to them much like they would deities.
Fox Tails – One way to gauge how old and thus powerful a kitsune is, is to count the number of tails. The more tails, the more powerful a kitsune will be. Fortunately, this power tops out at nine tails, but that is still a formidable being to encounter. Other folktales say that a kitsune gains one tail for every hundred years of life until they’ve reached 1,000 years of age. Other stories say that a kitsune gains their extra tails from Inari for their deeds and actions. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, they are believed to have its fur turn silver, white, or gold. These kyubi no kitsune or nine-tailed foxes are particularly powerful in that they can hear and see anything happening around the world. These foxes are also known for their infinite wisdom.
Illusions – Kitsune can create illusions that are incredibly realistic. As an offshoot of this power, other sources have tried to say the kitsune ability to bend reality, drive people mad, take on various shapes, or create a second moon. These may just be an extent to how realistic kitsune illusions can be.
Kitsune-Bi – Or foxfire, this is the ability of kitsune to create fire from their tails or to breathe fire. This foxfire has also been compared to will-o-wisps.
Hoshi no tama – This is similar to the kitsune-bi or foxfire. Some depictions of kitsune show them carrying around a white ball or hoshi no tama (star ball). These star balls are often glowing with foxfire. When in its fox form, a kitsune will keep or carry this star ball around in their mouth. When they’re in the guise of a human, this star ball may take the form of a jewel or piece of jewelry. There is a belief that this star ball holds part of the kitsune’s power or when the star ball is described as a pearl, a part of the kitsune’s soul and that the kitsune will die if they are separated too long from their jewel. Those who can get hold of a kitsune’s hoshi no tama can potentially get a favor from the kitsune.
Kitsune-ken – Translated as fox-fist, this refers to a kitsune’s power over humans. There is a game similar to rock, paper, and scissors, however, these three hand positions signify a fox, hunter, and village headman. The headman beats the hunter, the hunter beats the fox, and the fox beats the headman.
Shapeshifters – Aside from an increased number of tails, depending on the story, after a kitsune has reached the age 50 or 100, they are able to shapeshift into a human. Often, they will change into the form of a beautiful young woman or an old man.
Mirrors & Shadows – There is a limit to this shapeshifting, a fox will need to place reeds, a broad leaf or skull over their head to shapeshift. Another limit in folk tales is to look for the fox tail that a disguised kitsune will try to hide and other stories hold that looking at a person’s shadow will reveal if they’re a shapeshifted kitsune or not. Sometimes a shapeshifted kitsune’s true form will be revealed if they look into a mirror or other reflective surface.
Kitsune-gao – Or fox-faced, this is in reference to human women who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones. These facial features are considered attractive, and some stories hold that this is a sign of a fox in human form.
Tricksters – With their use of shapeshifting and illusions, it’s easy to see how kitsune are known for their mischievous natures and playing tricks on people. The more benevolent kitsune are prone to pranks and tricks on those that need to be taken down a notch while more malevolent kitsune are going to have more harmful tricks that they pull.
Like the Fae of Ireland, kitsune will keep a promise or oath given, seeking to repay any favor or debt that is owed. A kitsune may even go so far as to guard a particular individual or household and so long as they’re treated with respect, they will benefit their chosen companions.
Vampire Foxes – Some stories will depict kitsune-like vampires or succubus & incubuses who feed on the life energy or spirit of humans, most often through sex. These could be stories that are actually Kumiho or Huli jing.
Dogs – Kitsune are believed to have a fear and hatred of dogs even in their human guises. Some transformed kitsune will become so frightened that they will change back to their fox form to escape.
Food – I’m not sure if I would call this a weakness. Kitsune are known for having a fondness for deep-fried tofu which can be seen in the number of Japanese dishes that have deep-fried tofu and names such as Kitsune Udon and Inari zushi. Any dish that has red beans and deep-fried tofu is sure to be a favorite of a mischievous kitsune.
Old Fashion Speech – Some folklore suggests that kitsune only have interactions with humans every hundred years and for this reason, they have antiquated, outdated speech. Close to this is that kitsune have certain words that they have trouble pronouncing certain words. One of these words is “moshi,” so many Japanese have taken to answering their doors and phones with the greeting “moshi moshi!” to make sure a potential guess isn’t a kitsune.
As popular and old as the numerous legends and folklore of kitsune in Japan are, many scholars believe that all these stories likely trace their origins back to China, Korea, and possibly even India. The earliest collection of stories that we have were written down in the 11th-century manuscript, the Konjaku Monogatari, with stories hailing from China, India, and Japan.
Chinese folklore has stories of fox spirits known as Huli Jing and in Korea, there is the Kumiho both have strong similarities to the Japanese kitsune. There are similarities in the stories of these fox spirits with those from Japan, however, those attributes are negative ones.
There are some scholars who disagree on the origins of kitsune, whether that’s China and Korea or if they’re solely Japanese in origin. The Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki sees the kitsune as being held in a positive light in the 4th century C.E. and the negative traits from China and Korea are later additions.
Some scholars say that the kitsune can trace their origins to India where the fox has a role as a trickster in Indian spirituality. In this respect, the kitsune is compared to the Ruksasha. The Chinese story of the “White Ghost Tiger” of China as an enemy of the Chinese fox is likely a translation from India that the fox and Ruksasha have. The kitsune powers of illusion also have in common with the illusion powers of Ruksasha. Lastly, we see a connection between the Ruksasha’s tendency to devour humans has been compared to the vampiric traits seen with the huli jing and kumiho that are associated with kitsune.
Nozaki says that in the 16th-century book of records, Nihon Ryakki, foxes and humans have lived in close proximity to each other in ancient Japan. The Inari scholar Karen Smyers takes note that foxes being portrayed as seductresses have a connection to fox myths in Buddhism and were then introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese folklore.
Kami Or Yokai?
Depending on the source, kitsune can be classified as either a kami or a yokai. The name yokai is a broad general term and category for a good number of various supernatural monsters and spirits within Japanese mythology. The word Kami refers to the deities, any divine being, and spirits that are considered holy. Given the nature of kitsune and that not all of them will be divine and can be more negative in their antics, such as the nogitsune, it is easy to why the term yokai applies more to the mischievous shape-shifting kitsune. With the term kami, depending on the inflection or with a lowercase spelling, the word kami refers to a lesser spirit.
Are You A Good Fox Or A Bad Fox?
Within Japanese mythology and folklore, there are said to be thirteen types of kitsune, all of which correspond to different element such as celestial, wind, spirit, darkness, fire, earth, river, ocean, forest, mountain, thunder, sound, and time. In broad terms, these various kitsune can be divided into two groups of zenko (good) and nogitsune (bad) kitsune.
Kyubi no Kitsune – The nine-tailed foxes that many people will think of as kitsune. These are kitsune who have lived over a thousand years, gaining infinite wisdom. The kyubi no kitsune’s fur is often either silver, white or gold from their extreme age and they have the ability to see and hear anything happening around the world.
Myobu – The celestial fox, they are associated and aligned with the goddess Inari.
Ninko – They are an invisible fox spirit that people can perceive and only once it possesses them.
Yako – Translating to “field fox.” They are also known as Nogitsune. These kitsune are considered dangerous in that their tricks and mischievousness are more malevolent.
Zenko – These kitsune are considered good or benevolent and helpful. Most of the zenko kitsune will be aligned with the goddess Inari.
Also spelled as kitsune-tsuki, translates to fox possession. With kitsunetsuki, what happens, is a fox spirit will possess someone, who is always a young woman. The fox spirit is believed to enter through either beneath the fingernails or her breasts. A woman’s facial expressions are believed to have changed, becoming more fox-like. Other beliefs are that a person who was illiterate could gain the ability to read. A victim of kitsunetsuki will have a craving for rice or sweet red beans, become listless, restless and have an aversion to eye contact.
All kitsune can possess a person according to folklore, though they will only do so if someone agrees and lets them.
Japanese Witchcraft – Those who force a fox possession are those of a hereditary fox employee or tsukimono-suji. This does take us a step in the direction of looking at superstition. In Japan, a familiar would be the source of a person’s magical power. While nearly any animal could be a witch’s familiar, foxes and snakes are the most noted. There for a familiar acting as a tsukemono or “possessing being” would be used to explain a sudden illness, floods, and any number of misfortunes that could be attributed to evil spirits.
Insanity – With the hereditary fox possession, this would have explained mental illness, especially where it is hereditary. The victim of kitsunetsuki would frequently be treated cruelly in an effort of trying to drive out the possessing spirit. A victim would be taken to an Inari shrine in hopes that a priest would be able to perform an exorcism. If such a priest could not be found, then people would either beat or burn the victim in the hopes to drive out the fox spirit. There are some cases where an entire family could be ostracized if someone was believed to be kitsunetsuki.
Records of fox possession date from the Heian era and continue until the 20th century as a common diagnosis for insanity. Diagnosis’ of kitsunetsuki is specific to Japanese culture like clinical lycanthropy among Westerners. Stories of fox possession can still appear in tabloid media and other forums.
I say that as it puts me to the mind of fairy gold, where a person is paid in gold by a fae, and in the morning, the gold coins have turned to leaves and twigs.
The same thing happens with kitsune. Any payment or reward that involves money from a kitsune is going turn out to be the same thing. Pieces of paper, leaves, twigs, stones, and other similar junk items under an illusion. A kitsune sincere in their rewards and not tricking a human is more likely to offer intangible rewards such as protection, knowledge, and a long life.
As previously mentioned, the kitsune known as zenko are associated with the Shinto kami known as Inari, a deity of rice and such association has only reinforced the kitsune’s connection to the supernatural. These kitsune serve as Inari’s messengers and there are times that Inari themself is depicted as a fox. These kitsune also worship Inari and can be found in shrines and cemeteries. Devotees to Inari will also leave offerings of fried tofu and udon in offering for the fox spirits who they might petition to aid and protect against the nogitsune. The zenko or Inari kitsune can be identified by the red bibs that they were and that they cannot bring harm to humans. These kitsune will be white in color and seen as a good omen. In the same vein, black foxes and nine-tailed kitsune are also regarded as good omens. There is some speculation among folklorists on if there was another Shinto fox deity that existed prior to Inari and his association with kitsune.
Better known as fusui in Japan, it is believed that a statue of a fox is able to repel evil kimon or energy that comes from the northeast. There are many Inari shrines, notable is the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto where there large numbers of kitsune statues.
In the Buddhist religion, the goddess Dakiniten is seen as Inari’s female aspect. Dakiniten is often shown as a female boddhisattva riding a flying white fox as she wields a sword.
This is an old card game whose name translates to either “Ghost” or “Monster Cards” that people would play during the Edo period in the 19th century. Players would try to collect the most cards in order to win. The game is clearly a predecessor to the more modern Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Card games that collect and showcase different, various monsters. At any rate, one such obake karuta has a picture of a kitsune on it.
The Kitsune’s Hoshi no Tama
This is a 12th-century story where a man was able to gain a kitsune’s favor after taking their hoshi no tama or star ball. The kitsune pleaded with the man who ignored them. After a bit, the fox told the man that star ball wouldn’t do them any good and that if the man didn’t give him the star ball back, he would have a terrible enemy. However, if the man gave the star ball back, the kitsune promised to be a protector deity. The man gave the star ball back and the fox did indeed save his life by guiding the man past a band of robbers.
This is the name of a popular figure in folklore and kabuki plays, they always cast a fox’s shadow, even in their human form.
Lovers & Wives
It should come as no surprise that with kitsune being known to primarily shapeshift into beautiful women, they also frequently take on the roles of lovers or seductresses and wives. In many of these stories, sometimes a young man will unknowingly marry a kitsune, eventually, he learns of her real nature and she is forced to flee, reverting back to her fox form.
Sometimes the man will wake up finding himself in a fox den or some other place far from home, filthy and dirty. Other stories have the fox wife bearing the man children who inherit the kitsune abilities. There are several historical Japanese reputed to have been born of a kitsune mother. One such figure is the astrologer and magician Abe no Seimei.
Kitsune Wedding – When rain falls from a clear sky, this is called a kitsune no yomeiri or the kitsune’s wedding. There is a folktale where a kitsune wedding is described as happening in just such conditions. The events are considered good omens and the kitsune seek retribution on any who are uninvited.
For the versions of the kitsune reported to be a type of energy vampire or succubae/incubi, this makes sense for them to go this route in order to get close to their prey and feed.
This story concerns a historical person by the name of Koan who had been staying in the home of one of his devotees. As Koan entered the bathhouse, he scaled his foot after the water had been drawn too hot. Yelping in pain, Koan fled the bathhouse naked and the people present who saw him were astonished to see fur covering much of his body and a fox’s tail. Koan transformed into a fox in front of everyone into an elderly fox before running away.
An Old Fox Tale
This story is one of the oldest surviving kitsune tales that date to C.E. 545. It is found in the Nihon Ryouiki or “Japanese Ghost Stories” collection. There are many numerous stories of kitsune appearing to a human man as a woman and then her fox nature is revealed that she must flee and run away. This story is slightly different from how it ends.
A man by the name of Ono who lived on the island of Mino, spent years longing for his ideal image of feminine beauty. One evening, Ono met a beautiful woman out on a moor and married her after proposing to her on the spot and detailing all the ways in which he would take care of her. At the time of the birth of their son, Ono’s dog also gave birth to a pup. As the pup grew, it became more and more hostile to the woman. She begged Ono to kill the pup, but he refused. One day, the dog attacked the woman so aggressively that she became frightened, transforming into a kitsune with nine tails who to lept over a fence as she fled.
Ono called after the fox that “You may be a fox! But you are the mother of my son and I love you! Come back when you please, you will always be welcome!”
So, the fox did, every evening she would return to sleep in Ono’s arms and then leave in the morning.
In this story, it is noted there is an old etymology for kitsune with kitsu-ne meaning “come and sleep,” and ki-tsune meaning “always comes.” Which I find interesting depending on the emphasis for the syllables.
Kitsune Versus Tanuki Rivalries
The tanuki or raccoon dogs of Japan are another notable trickster, and they share a lot of traits in common with kitsune such as shapeshifting. There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover. A kitsune is often more snobbish and someone said to have a triangular, foxlike or kitsune-face is given as a compliment. In comparison, the tanuki is regarded as clumsier or a bit of a slop and to say that someone is tanuki-faced, having a more squarish or round face is to say they’re silly.
I find it interesting to learn that when you take the kanji for kitsune (狐) and the kanji for tanuki (狸) and put them together to form 狐狸, this reads as kori and is a metaphor for a “sly person.” Then, when you place the kanji for dog or inu (狗) between those kanji, you get the word kokkuri (狐狗狸), which is the name for a Japanese divination game much like the party atmosphere use of Ouija boards.
There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover.
Other Fox Spirits
Hồ ly tinh – This is the name for the Vietnamese fox spirit.
Hulijing – These more dangerous fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from China.
Komihu – These fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from Korea.
Reynard the Fox – The familiar fox trickster from Western literature. Reynard is the name of the fox in the French The Beast Epic. The name Reynard is often the stock name for a fox character.