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Japanese demon fox (Ekaterina Glazkova / Adobe Stock)

Beware the Kitsune, The Shapeshifting Fox of Japanese Folklore

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Kitsune (狐狸精), the Japanese fox-spirit, is also known as the Kumiho (구미호) in Korea and the Huli Jing (狐狸精) in China. They are basically the same creature but with a few differences based on region.

夜の暗闇の中で
狐の罠
作るのは簡単です

In the dark of evening
The fox’s trap
Is easy to make

In all three cultures, the fox-spirit is mostly viewed as an evil creature . They were known to enjoy the company of humans for a variety of reasons that almost always end badly for the unfortunate individual who encounters one. The main reason a fox-spirit might search out a human was to suck away their life force or to even eat human flesh and thereby steal any powers that person might have along with all their memories, knowledge, and even their human form.

The older a fox-spirit grew to be the more powerful it became and the more people whose life-force it had leeched away the more powerful it grew as well. A fox was said to be able to take on a human form only once it had gained enough life-force and had aged up to 500 years old and that they grew an extra tail for every 100 years of age. The oldest of foxes were said to the nine tailed foxes who were 900 years old and sometimes older.

In Japanese folklore a Kitsune may have up to nine tails. (santagor / Adobe)

In Japanese folklore a Kitsune may have up to nine tails. ( santagor / Adobe)

Please note, that my area of expertise is Japan so I will only briefly touch on Korea and China because I don’t want to give any misinformation and there is so much lore to go through in each country that I couldn’t possibly cover them all in one article. Please look in the resources section for some excellent websites, PDFs, and books where you can read even more about these not-so-elusive creatures.

The Kitsune in Korea - Kumiho and China – Huli Jing

In Korea, the Kumiho uses a marble carried in its mouth to steal wisdom from humans, usually through a kiss. In Korea, the fox-spirit could take on human form at the age of 100 years of age and the human shape will always be female. However, the fox-spirit requires the use of human skull that it places on top of its head in order to transform. It can also devour a human to take on their shape.

Does this mean the fox itself was female? Not necessarily, but the human shape will always be that of an attractive young woman.

A Kitsune, Lady Kayo, holding a severed head. (Claremont Colleges Digital Library / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Kitsune, Lady Kayo, holding a severed head. (Claremont Colleges Digital Library / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Often times the Kumiho will take on the form of someone their intended victim knows so that they are more trusting and easier to get close enough to. One of the telling features that you are dealing with a Kumiho would be that it acts differently than the person it is portraying, either saying or eating things they usually would not.

They might have a different eye color or speak in an old-fashioned way or you could begin to look for its tail as the tail will always be present. The Kumiho will try its best to hide it, refusing to face its back towards you.

The warrior Miura-no-suke confronting Lady Tamamo-no-mae as she turns into a Kitsune. (Pharos / Public Domain)

The warrior Miura-no-suke confronting Lady Tamamo-no-mae as she turns into a Kitsune. (Pharos / Public Domain )

In China, the Huli Jing is always a female who works to seduce men of great power. Often times they could be found trying to insinuate themselves into the lives of generals and emperors in the hopes of manipulating political and palatial intrigues purely for their own entertainment as far as we can tell. Who knows what a fox-spirits true intention might really have been?

In the Chinese stories of the fox-spirit, the Huli Jing can appear to be very kind and beneficial to the man whom she is with. However, she is always vicious and full of trickery towards any other women in the household be they relatives or simple servants. She enjoys playing cruel and often fatal ‘tricks’ on women but always seems to manage to give it the appearance of an accident. And woe be to you if you were a female stepchild.

The men whom the Huli Jing are with often come to power very quickly, becoming famous with great wealth and swathes of land. However, once the Huli Jing has taken all the energy generated by his hubris and when the man begins to become old and senile and no longer able to produce the energy she craves, the Huli Jing will leave, taking her immortal beauty and good luck with her while leaving her ex to pine and wither over his lost love and luxury.

Japanese folktales speak of the Kitsune who trick others by portraying themselves as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives. (IrenHorrors / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Japanese folktales speak of the Kitsune who trick others by portraying themselves as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives. (IrenHorrors / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

And if this wasn’t enough to convince on the hidden evils of the Chinese fox-spirit, then take a look at what this Chinese classic text , Of Mountains and Seas (山海經), has to say about the true form of the Huli Jing:

有獸焉,其狀如狐而九尾,其音如嬰兒,能食人

There is a beast shaped like a fox with nine tales, it sounds like a baby, it eats men.

The Kitsune of Japan

The most commonly known, and most popular, name of the fox-spirit comes from Japan; Kitsune. In Japan, Kitsune can be both male and female, though the females are still vastly more common. The name Kitsune is believed to have come from two words put together. Some sources suggest that the name comes from:

Kitsu – the sound a fox makes but can also mean “ Come here ”.

Tsune – meaning ‘always’ but can also be an alternate reading of ‘Ki’ – which can mean both the color ‘gold’ or the word for ‘energy’ depending on which Kanji you use. And ‘Ne’ being the feminine version of expressing or over emphasizing a good mood in Japanese, such as Shiawase-ne! (I’m very happy) or Ii-ne! (Great).

So Kitsune could mean ‘always golden’ or ‘always energy/energized’ depending on how you interpret it.

I like to think that foxes are rather energetic creatures, so this reading has a certain fondness for me. However, one of the most popular tales of how the fox-spirit got its moniker is from a story found in the Nihon Ryouiki (日本霊異記), roughly translated as “ Japanese Ghost Stories ” it is a collection of strange and unusual lore.

The story goes like this:

There once was a very lonely man who was hard at work on his farm. He worked day in and day out and had plenty of food to eat and a nice home which he cared for, but he had not a wife. He had searched for many years for a woman to make his own but could never find one suitable enough. One day while he was about in his field, he looked up to find a staggeringly beautiful woman, she could be nothing less than a Lady, and he fell in love immediately. He asked that she marry him, explaining to her all he had and how he could take care of her and, to his great joy, she agreed. The couple married and they lived very happily together for many years. To the farmers great joy his wife one day told him that finally she was with child and that they would be a complete family. He was overjoyed and took great care of his wife and their unborn child. When the baby was finally born, he found that his pet dog had also beget a single puppy. He had hopes that the child and puppy would grow up together and be good companions but as the puppy grew it became increasingly hostile towards the farmer’s wife for no apparent reason. Months went by like this until one day the pup-turned-dog tore into the Lady’s arm, terrified for her life the woman vanished in a fit of robes and silks and in her place sat a fox with nine tales. She looked up in surprised bewilderment and, realizing what she had done, bolted out of the house and away from the angry jaws of the dog. Days, weeks, months went by and she did not return. The man was heartbroken, he loved his wife and missed her and did not care that she was really a fox-spirit. He cried for her every night, wondering the fields in despair, calling out in his voice that grew hoarse and broken from tears for her to please, “Kitsu-ne?”

A Kitsune posing as a beautiful woman. (PhallseAnghell / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Kitsune posing as a beautiful woman. (PhallseAnghell / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Stories such as these are often the origin tales of famous people who had been born with extraordinary abilities such as the Shugendō Priest , En-No-Gyoja, and the Onmyōdō Priest, Abe-No-Seimei. They both claimed to have had a Kitsune mother.

Even though the fox-spirit in this story was benevolent and kind hearted, she still brought about sadness to the man she loved when she chose to run away. In some versions of the story the man later died of loneliness and in others he leaves in search of his lover and never returns.

Types of Kitsune

There are three different types of Kitsune in Japan. Each of these has their own special characteristics that makes them a little unique on their own:

Youko – these are considered to be Kitsune, but I often wonder if they should be their own listing as they are not really fox-spirits, but demons that have taken the shape of a fox. The Huli Jing poem described above mentioned them as sounding like a baby and this crying is often used to lure in unsuspecting victims looking to save the hapless infant only to be devoured.

Myoubu – these are specifically the fox-spirits that have aligned themselves as the messenger of Inari O-kami, they can do no evil and are sworn to assist his/her worshippers. These are the statues that you will see at shrines and cemeteries wearing their distinctive red bibs.

Kitsune guardians at a Shinto Shrine. (searagen / Adobe)

Kitsune guardians at a Shinto Shrine. ( searagen / Adobe)

Nogitsune – these are the foxes that interact the most directly with humans and (unlike in China and Korea) they can be good or bad. They are not aligned with Inari O-kami and so are considered to be ‘wild’ but not in the same sense that an actual fox is, it’s more that they can choose to do whatever they want and do not worry about karmic reparations. Of all the stories you will find out the Kitsune, this is the type you will see the most as they go about their lives sometimes choosing to harass and sometimes choosing to befriend humanity.

How to Expose a Spirit-Fox?

In Japan, the Kitsune is often discovered because of some characteristic that cannot be hidden. As with the Kumiho, the Kitsune will almost always have a tail and sometimes fox ears. The Kitsune will often try to stay in the shadows so that it’s features cannot be seen very well as it is said that their skin will be very clear and almost luminous looking due to having not been exposed to the sun very often (fur, natures sunblock).

Often times they might use speech that would be considered out of date or out of fashion since they do not often interact with humans, sometimes only coming forth every hundred years or more, and so might not know the current usage of appropriate language. They might speak at an unusual pace, either very slow or very fast.

A Kitsune’s true form is visible from their reflection or shadow. (Amcaja / Public Domain)

A Kitsune’s true form is visible from their reflection or shadow. (Amcaja / Public Domain )

There are words in Japanese with which Kitsune are said to have trouble pronouncing, one of these words is “Moshi” because of this people began to answer their doors (and now their modern-day cellphones) with the greeting, “ Moshi-moshi?” to confirm that it is not a Kitsune.

Kitsune and dogs do not get along and so the Kitsune may be exposed due to its adverse reactions to canine companions such as extreme fearfulness of dogs. Wanting to cause harm or wishing harm on dogs. Dogs will actively growl and attempt to chase away the kitsune.

Kitsune are said to have the ability to become invisible however, they cannot hide their shadow which will appear in the shape of the fox-eared Kitsune. You could also see them by passing a room through with incense smoke and the smoke will outline their forms and scare the Kitsune off. They also dislike the scent of incense .

A Kitsune will always be exposed by its reflection and will avoid anything with a mirror-like surface such as water, polished metal plates, metal spoons, or metal pots and of course – mirrors. A Lady who refuses to keep a mirror in her room would be suspected of being either a Kitsune or being possessed by a Kitsune (Kitsunestuki, more on that below).

Inarizushi is a type a tofu and rice sushi that is fried and very sweet tasting. Inarizushi is often left as offering for the God Inari O-Kami. It is said that the Kitsune cannot resist this type of sushi and will stop to eat it, reverting to its fox-spirit form in order to enjoy the delicious treat. If you leave out the sushi you will expose the Kitsune for what he or she truly is because of this.

Japanese inarizushi said to attract the Kitsune. (Ocdp / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Japanese inarizushi said to attract the Kitsune. (Ocdp / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Hoshi-no-tama – this is a type of ball, similar to the Kumiho’s marble, that contains some of the Kitsunes power. It appears as a glowing, floating, ball that is precious to the Kitsune. If you can find and keep this ball the Kitsune will be compelled to serve you in order to earn it back. However, the Kitsune will try everything in its power to get it back. It is similar in nature to fox-fire (will-o-wisp).

Kitsunetsuki (狐憑き) – Fox-Spirit Possession

This is a long and complicated topic, especially among the Shugendō who still regularly perform exorcisms. Just know that this type of Kitsune is not a true Kitsune and that fox-spirits can possess both humans and actual fox.

When in possession of a human body the Kitsune will often cause all sorts of trouble. Usually it is benign fun but often times it will become more nefarious as time goes on. Entire families have been led to financial ruin over fox possession.

Prince Hanzoku terrorized by a Kitsune. Source: Petrusbarbygere / Public Domain.

Prince Hanzoku terrorized by a Kitsune. Source: Petrusbarbygere / Public Domain .

 
How to Keep the Spirit-Fox out of the Proverbial Chicken Coop?

The best way to keep the fox-spirit away from you is to be proactive in self-preservation. They cannot take what you do not give. They are not gods and they are not all powerful. Ignoring them is your best defense.

Don’t trust the shifty stranger who talks of wind and rain while standing in the shade on a perfectly sunny day. If a pretty girl or guy starts talking to you out of the blue, if he or she seems too good to be true, if you think you might see a yellow glint to their eyes, or the shadow of a tail, then don’t trust them as they might be a Kitsune. If you feel like you’re being followed but all you see is shadows and a sudden spark of light then be wary.

When it comes to the Kitsune their main strengths are being able to trick you and use subterfuge to make your life complicated. This could mean they make a wonderfully fun companion or a terrible roommate. They come in like a whirlwind and then are gone before you know what hit you, leaving you feeling tired and yet wanting more. If you’re not careful, dear reader, you might find yourself outside, wandering the streets calling, “Kitsu-ne?”

Top image: Japanese demon fox ( Ekaterina Glazkova / Adobe Stock)

By Nisa Ryan

Resources

Hearn, L. 2005. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan . [Online] Available at: http://academia.issendai.com/foxtales/japan-lafcadio-hearn.shtml
Heine, S. 1999. Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in Fox Kōan . Univ of Hawaii Press.
Johnson, T. Date Unknown. Far Eastern Fox Lore . [Online] Available at: http://asianethnology.org/downloads/ae/pdf/a266.pdf
Kincaid, C. 2016.  Come and Sleep: The Folklore of the Japanese Fox . CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Lombardi, L. 2014. Kitsune: The Divine/Evil Fox Yokai . [Online] Available at: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/kitsune-yokai-fox/
Nozaki, K. 1961. Kitsune: Japan’s Fox of Mystery, Romance and Humor . [Online] Available at: http://www.coyotes.org/kitsune/kitsunebook.html
Smyers, K. 1998. The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship . University of Hawaii Press.

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