KITSUNE - FOXES IN JAPANESE CULTURE AND ART
According to myths and legends, the Japanese used to live very close to foxes. Fox is still one of the most popular animals in the folklore, culture and art of Japan. Dwarves are considered their European equivalent. Kitsune is a rational being with magical powers. The special position of foxes in the Japanese culture is clear based on the number of places where we can find their image – from temples to shrines, scattered all over the country.
Good and evil foxes
Kitsune became wiser and more powerful with age. The mightiest foxes had nine tails. Black, gold or white kitsune were good characters, treated by the Japanese with reverence, respect and kindness. Field foxes, on the other hand, malicious and mischievous, circling around cemeteries and Buddhist temples, invoked fear. So fox could be positive and caring or vengeful and mean. However, the division is not always that easy as it is hard to tell good foxes from evil ones. Legend has it that good foxes barked by making a kon-kon sound, and evil ones – a kai-kai sound.
Good foxes were seen as servants of deities, or even as deities themselves, responsible for harvest or fortune. They are called kinko (gold), ginko (silver), byakko (white), kokko (black), tenko (heavenly) and kūko (air foxes). Wild evil foxes cast spells on people, brought diseases and possession. They could also cause illusions. A man on whom a fox has cast a spell may think he is at home while he is actually in a forest or in the swamps. Or on the contrary, he may believe that there a dangerous earthquake is happening while it is a peaceful night.
Possession by foxes
It must be emphasised that possession was not always something dangerous; foxes often played only mischievous tricks on people. When a fox cast a spell, the affected person lost all sensation – so it was enough to pinch yourself to see whether you were bound by the magic of kitsune. But when a person turned out to be possessed by a fox, it was not easy to cast off the spell. The first symptoms were epileptic attacks and inappropriate, aggressive behaviour in public places. To drive the fox spirit away, one had to call a monk or fortune teller for help. They would perform special rituals, usually praying to Inari, the goddess taking care of foxes. Less invasive methods included leaving the foxes’ favourite treats for them so that the spirit started to eat and left the body of the possessed person. If everything went well, the man who was no longer controlled by kitsune did not remember what had happened to him but at the same time was unable to eat the fox’s favourite food till the end of his life. The folk method of getting rid of a fox spirit was to keep beating the affected periods with sticks until the fox left the body – in practice, the possessed person usually died before that happened.
To avoid the unpleasant consequences of the spells cast by foxes, people steered clear of the places where they resided, Maki being the most famous one. Furthermore, kitsune are afraid of dogs, who are their eternal enemies as they may recognise whether someone is a fox or a man and they are immune to the vulpine magic. This is why a person who carried a canine tooth or a sign denoting a dog (kanji) was protected against kitsune spells.
Possessions were treated seriously even at the end of the 19th century, and in 1892 a group of physicians was sent to one of Japan’s regions to investigate the phenomenon. It turned out that the victims were usually uneducated women with low intelligence. The doctors realised that the “possessions” were caused by strong psychoses – after the results were published, vulpine “possessions” were officially recognised as a superstition and a symptom of a psychiatric disorder.
Foxes could take various forms, even human. They usually were able change into man if they were at least one hundred years old. In some parts of Japan people believed that foxes mastered the art of free transformation only once they had lived five hundred years or had escaped being struck by a lightening five times. To turn into man, the foxes put a human or animal skull on their heads and held bones (bovine or equine) in their snout. They would find a secluded place so that no one could see them. If the skull fell down, the transformation was either unsuccessful or incomplete. It was easy to recognise foxes that did not completely transform – they were people with hairy faces or a tail hanging from under the kimono (the tail was a part of the body that was the hardest to transform). According to some legends, foxes would use grass or reed instead of a skull.
It was the hardest to recognise a fox that turned into a human. Still, there were two ways to do this. At night, fox-men would exude a pale glow. Lack of reflection in the water, a reflection showing a tale or showing directly a fox – these were also signs that we were dealing with a kitsune. Foxes usually took the form of young women or monks. They did this mostly when they sought help – they wanted accommodation or food. Another purpose of transformation was to be able to express gratitude and thank a man for his good deed.
Vulpine wife is a frequent motif in Japanese legend. When she was exposed (usually by a dog), she had to leave the house, even though she still looked after her children. Marriages between a fox and man gave truly gifted and smart offspring. A vulpine wife could use her magic to ensure generous crop and even create an illusion of empty and small ears of grain that actually gave good yield – as a result, tax collectors would exempt such a seemingly poor family from additional fees.
In Japan, we often encounter characteristic temples dedicated to Inari – the goddess of harvest and fertility. They have red tori gates and fox statues, whose presence is explained in one of the legends. The Funaoka hill in Kyoto was inhabited by two white foxes that had a happy family with five cubs. One day, they decided to visit the largest chram of Inari. Once they arrived, they decided to ask the deity to accept their services so that their work and devotion could help further the prosperity of the world. Inari agreed and made the foxes her servants.
However, the actual connection between foxes and the worship of the deities responsible for crop and harvest seems to be more earthly. Traditional farming communities had always had problems with foxes, who damaged the crops. They would come down from the mountains – an area that has always been associated with gods in Japanese culture. To protect the crops against the wandering foxes, the inhabitants of villages would leave food for them away from the fields. Gradually, in places intended for such gifts, people started to set up shrines with vulpine images.
Kitsune in Japanese culture
Foxes are present in Japanese culture to this day, also in the language sphere. Since foxes loved tofu, which was used as the offering, udon noodles with tofu are still called vulpine udon. Inarisushi is a special type of sushi – packets of fried tofu are filled with sushi rice and vegetables, mushrooms or sliced tamago. Thus “packed” rice does not get dry which is why the dish is an excellent option for a lunch or picnic.