Kitsune the Demon Fox

In Japanese folklore, the Kitsune is a magical being that most often appears as a fox. When it is around 100 years old, the Kitsune can also manifest in human form, most often that of a beautiful girl. Well known as tricksters, the Kitsune can appear as a lovely, seductive girl one moment and lure a lusty young man into a cave where it shape-shifts into the image of an old man. The Kitsune are master illusionists and are generally good-natured. If one incurs its wrath, however, it can manipulate time and space and drive people insane.

In ancient Japan, foxes and human beings lived close together; this companionship gave rise to legends about the creatures. Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami (god) or spirit, and serve as its messengers. Inari is often worshipped as a healer; and still more frequently as a deity having power to give wealth. Also his foxes are sometimes represented holding keys in their mouths. This role has reinforced the fox's supernatural significance. Generally, a greater number of tails indicates an older and more powerful fox; in fact, some folktales say that a fox will only grow additional tails after it has lived 100 years. One, five, seven, and nine tails are the most common numbers in folk stories. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, its fur becomes white or gold. These nine-tailed foxes (kyūbi no kitsune) gain the abilities to see and hear anything happening anywhere in the world. Other tales attribute them infinite wisdom (omniscience).

Prince Hanzoku and the Nine-tailed Fox

According to legend, there are several type of foxes and they all have supernatural power. The Inari-fox (O-Kitsune- San), the wild fox (Nogitsune) and the worst fox is the Ninko (Hito-kitsune or Man-fox): this is especially the fox of demonical possession. It is no larger than a weasel, and somewhat similar in shape, except for its tail, which is like the tail of any other fox. It is rarely seen, keeping itself invisible, except to those to whom it attaches itself. It likes to live in the houses of men, and to be nourished by them, and to the homes where it is well cared for it will bring prosperity. It will take care that the rice-fields shall never want for water, nor the cooking-pot for rice. But if offended, it will bring misfortune to the household, and ruin to the crops. The favourite shape assumed by the demon fox for the purpose of deluding mankind is that of a beautiful woman; much less frequently the form of a young man is taken in order to deceive some one of the other sex. Innumerable are the stories told or written about the wiles of fox-women. And a dangerous woman of that class whose art is to enslave men, and strip them of all they possess, is popularly named by a word of deadly insult—kitsune.

The fox does not always appear in the guise of a woman for evil purposes. There are several stories, and one really pretty play, about a fox who took the shape of a beautiful woman, and married a man, and bore him children—all out of gratitude for some favour received—the happiness of the family being only disturbed by some odd carnivorous propensities on the part of the offspring. Merely to achieve a diabolical purpose, the form of a woman is not always the best disguise. There are men quite insusceptible to feminine witchcraft. But the fox is never at a loss for a disguise. Furthermore, he can make you see or hear or imagine whatever he wishes you to see, hear, or imagine. He can make you see out of Time and Space; he can recall the past and reveal the future.

The wild fox (Nogitsune) is also bad. It also sometimes takes possession of people; but it is especially a wizard, and prefers to deceive by enchantment. It has the power of assuming any shape and of making itself invisible; but the dog can always see it, so that it is extremely afraid of the dog.

In the late seventeenth century work Honcho Shokkan contain an account about magicians that employ foxes by means of the Izuna rite. For this rite require a pregnant vixen in her lair. And then he (the performer) must feed and tame her, taking particular care of her at the time when her cubs are born. When the cubs are grown up, the vixen will bring one of them to him and ask him to give it a name. Once he have done this he will find that he only have to call the young fox by name for it to come to him in invisible form. Then he can ask it any question he like, on any matter however secret, and will be able to find out the answer for him while other people cannot see the fox in its invisible form. This peculiar rite, described in almost identical terms in several Tokugawa works, and it was much performed by warriors, noblemen or priests anxious for power, wealth or revenge.

In a few district of rural Japan, most notoriously along the coast of the Japan Sea, certain families are still subject to a peculiar form of ostracism. It is alleged that for generations they have kept foxes in their houses, and thanks to the malign powers of the creatures they have not only become extremely rich, but also are able to revenge themselves on those whom they dislike by setting the creatures to possess them.

A couple centuries ago, Motoori Norinaga mentions a kitsune case in 1747, in which the daimyo of the Hirose fief ordered the extirpation of a family accused of fox-owning. Their house was burnt down and the entire family banished from the fief.

In 1952 the Shimane edition of Mainichi Simbun reported that a young couple had committed a double suicide because the young man’s parents forbidden him to marry a girl on the grounds that the fox-owning stigma attached to her family.

To define the fox-superstition at all is difficult, not only on account of the confusion of ideas on the subject among the believers themselves, but also on account of the variety of elements out of which it has been shapen. Its origin is Chinese; but in Japan it became oddly blended with the worship of a Shinto deity, and again modified and expanded by the Buddhist concepts of thaumaturgy and magic. So far as the common people are concerned, it is perhaps safe to say that they pay devotion to foxes chiefly because they fear them.

Sources :
Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn;
Real Monster, Gruesome Critters, and Beasts from the Darkside by Brad Steiger;
The Catalpa Bow : “A Study in Shamanistic Practices in Japan” by Carmen Blacker;

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