The Foxes’ Wedding — a weather or ghostly phenomenon, an astronomical and shrine ritual

A real wedding ceremony to be held tomorrow in Takasaki, Gunma, being a re-enactment of the Fox's Wedding folktale and shrine legend

A real wedding ceremony to be held tomorrow in Takasaki, Gunma, being a re-enactment of the Fox’s Wedding folktale and shrine legend (source: NHK Asaichi TV program)

The “Fox’s Wedding”, one of the most mysterious and romantic myths of Japan, is a popular folktale being re-enacted in actual weddings and shrine festivals in today.

Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri

Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri

Above is a photo of the re-enactment of the “Fox’s Wedding” held in the castle town of Minowa. The wedding ceremony passed down the generations in the Takasaki City Misato area is portrayed in a fox’s wedding and people made up to look like foxes march along in a parade. (Contact the Misato Branch Office of Takasaki City for tourist info, and see this blog). It is celebrated by locals in Gunma Prefecture’s Takasaki City on  6 (Sun) October.

The fox’s wedding, the legend

The fox bride and the fox groom

The fox bride and the fox groom, in a festival of  Takasaki, Gunma

As the legend goes,

Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyémon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony. Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, of course, received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while.* After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy.

*A shower during sunshine, which we call “the devil beating his wife,” is called in Japan “the fox’s bride going to her husband’s house.”

(This account of the story appears in Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford. It and its illustrations are reused according to the terms of the Project Gutenberg License online at http://www.gutenberg.net.)

Associations of the myth with weather phenomenon, such as sunshowers and fox-rain

In the Kantō region, Chūbu region, Kansai region! Chūgoku region, Shikoku, Kyushu, among other places, sunshowers are called “kitsune no yomeiri.”

Like kitsune-bi foxfires and atmospheric ghost lights, this phenomena is called various names depending on area. In the Nanbu Region, Aomori Prefecture, it is called “kitsune no yometori” (狐の嫁取り, the fox’s wife-taking), and in Serizawa, Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture and the mountainous areas of Oe District, Tokushima Prefecture, it is called “kitsune-ame” (狐雨, fox rain).  In the eastern Isumi District, Chiba Prefecture, it is called “kitsune no shūgen” (狐の祝言). In the Higashi-Katsushika District, Chiba Prefecture, it is referred to as “kitsune no yometori ame” (狐の嫁取り雨, the fox’s wife-taking rain) like in Aomori, but this stems from the fact that this area was once a farming area, and seeing as how wives were noted for their labor, wives were thought as ones who existed to be “taken” for the sake of the prosperity of the family.

The relation between a fox’s wedding and the weather also differs by area, and in the Kumamoto Prefecture, it is when a rainbow appears, and in the Aichi Prefecture, it is when graupel falls that there is a fox’s wedding.

The “Kitsune no Yomeiri-zu” from the Edo period by the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika was based upon this weather-related folk belief, and it depicted various people surprised by a fox’s wedding procession and a sudden shower, and their bustle to take in their crop. This has been pointed out to be an unusual example where the imaginary background of the foxes and the real customs of farming villages are depicted at the same time in a painting.

Detail of Hokusai's

Detail from “Hokusai’s Kitsune-no-yomeiri-zu”

A poem of Kobayashi Issa, a haiku poet of the same era, reads, “in the autumn flames and mountains, there is the rain of fox’s weddings” (秋の火や山は狐の嫁入雨). Also, in the works of the Meiji period waka and haiku poet Kobayashi Issa, there was a tanka that read, “when the rain falls on the village from a blue sky at the hour of the horse, perhaps the king fox is getting married” (青空にむら雨すぐる馬時狐の大王妻めすらんか).

From the ningyō jōruri “Dan no Ura Kabuto Gunki” (壇浦兜軍記) first performed in 1732, one hears the refrain “it was quite clear weather all the way up to now, but then I heard it, the playful rain of the fox’s wedding” and in the period novel Onihei Hankachō published after the war, there was one volume titled “fox rain” (狐雨).

In Edo period kusazōshi and kibyōshi such as “無物喰狐婿入” (illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi) published in 1785 (Tenmei 5), “Mukashigatari Kitsune Yomeiri” (昔語狐娶入) (illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa), and “Anasaka Kitsune Engumi” (穴賢狐縁組) (illustrated by Jippensha Ikku), as well as in Kamigata e-hon such as the “Shūgen Kitsune no Mukoiri” and “Ehon Atsumegusa,” there are depictions of “foxes weddings” of humanized foxes going through weddings. There was a genre of works called “yomeiri mono” (嫁入り物, “wedding things”) of humanized animals going through weddings, but foxes had the special characteristic of concretely having the name Inari no Kami attached to them. This is seen to be an indication that faith in the god Inari as well as “yomeiri mono” both deeply permeated among the common people.

The foxes' wedding as depicted in Shugen Kitsne no Mukoiri

The foxes’ wedding as depicted in Shugen Kitsne no Mukoiri

Among local people, in Akaoka, Kōchi Prefecture (now Kōnan) among other places, there is the children’s song in which we hear “when rain falls in good weather, it’s the fox’s wedding” (日和に雨が降りゃ 狐の嫁入り, hiyori ni ame ga furya, kitsune no yomeiri), and it is said that an actual fox’s wedding precession was seen on a day of a sunshower.

The foxes’s wedding as an auspicious wedding reenactment (or wedding rite for the reversal of ill-fortune)

In the Suzakihamamiyashinemei Jinja in Miyado, Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, during setsubun, a shinto ritual called “kitsune no yomeiri dōchū (the fox’s wedding journey)” performed in the Edo period, and revived during the postwar period, and a man and woman who were in a yakudoshi or “unlucky age” that year would dress up as a little fox, the head envoy of the gods, and a girl fox, the envoy of the god of Suzakihamamiyashinemei Jinja, and then re-enact a wedding, which at that time it can be seen to flourish with several tens of thousands of visitors to the shrine. [The dressup as foxes was probably an act of deception intended to trick the gods into not knowing the couple’s true identity, so as not to attract misfortun while allowing them to go ahead with their wedding rites.)

….

Fox sightings, supernatural and ghostly encounters and — omens of death

The abovementioned auspicious tale has an ominous and foreboding counterpart legend in Tokushima prefecture, where the lantern procession and fox’s wedding weather phenomena sightings, are an omen that someone is about to die, a part of a funeral ritual.

Generally at night in the mountains or at riverbeds, it is said that countless kitsunebi would come together in a line and look like a procession of paper lanterns, and it is said that the foxes are lighting paper lanterns for a wedding ceremony, and thus it is called “the fox’s wedding.” These mysterious flames have the particular characteeristic that they can only be seen from afar.

In the essay “Kokon Yōdan Shū” from the Edo Period, there was a story where someone actually encountered the wedding. In Kanpō 5 (1745), a man appeared in the ferry landing in Takemachi, Honjo, and since there was a wedding ceremony in the home of his employer who he works for, he requested many ferryboats to gather, and as a gift to the host of the ferry landing, he gave one ryō as a tip. The host happily prepared the boats and waited, and since a splendid wedding procession came, the host courteously escorted the procession. However, the next morning, not to mention the tip, all of the ferry money turned into tree leaves. Local rumors have it that there was a wedding between deities(?) of Handa Inari in Kanamachi, Kasai (now Katsushika, Tokyo) and Yasuzemon Inari in Asakusa.

There are many foxes that live in Kirinzan in the Niigata Prefecture, and it is said that at night, there was a wedding procession with hanging paper lanterns. For this reason,  there is a festival called the Kitsune no Yomeiri Gyōretsu is performed in the Tsugawa region, Aga, Higashikanbara also in the same prefecture. Originally a place famous for kitsunebi, an event related to kitsunebi was performed starting from Shōwa 27, the wedding precession (yomeiri gyōretsu) is today an annual sightseeing event, with about 40 thousand sightseers.

A topography book of the Echigo province (now Niigata Prefecture), from the Hōreki period, the “Echigo Nayose” (越後名寄), includes the following statement about the appearance of the “kitsune no yomeiri”:

At whatever time at night, whatever place, on occasions when it becomes extraordinarily quiet, flames like paper lanterns or embers can be seen continuing far into the distance, far surpassing even one ri. They are quite rare in all places, but they appear occasionally in the Kanbara district. This is said to be the wedding of young foxes.

In here, lines of atmospheric ghost lights that stretch close to 4 kilometers are called “kitsune no kon,” and also in Nakakubiki District, Niigata Prefecture, and Uonuma of the same prefecture, the Akita Prefecture, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki Prefecture, Nanakai, Nishiibaraki District of the same prefecture(now Shirosato), Hitachiōta of the same prefecture, Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, Higashichichibu of the same prefecture, the Tama area of Tokyo, the Gunma Prefecture, the Tochigi Prefecture, Mukawa, Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, the Mie Prefecture, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, and Nanbu, Saihaku District, Tottori Prefecture, among other places, when atmospheric ghost lights (kitsunebi) are seen in the countryside at night, the phenomenon is called “kitsune no yomeiri.”

What it is called can vary depending on area; for example, the phenomenon is called “kitsune no yometori (狐の嫁取り, the fox’s wife-taking)” in Sōka, Saitama Prefecture and Noto, Fugeshi District, Ishikawa Prefecture (now Noto, Hōsu District)[15][16] while referred to as “kitsune no shūgen” (狐の祝言) in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Several theories exist as to why the bride and groom are seen as foxes. One such theory says that although the lights appeared to be signifying a wedding, there was actually no wedding anywhere and the entire thing was an elaborate trick played by foxes.

Past phenomenon in Toyoshima in Edo (now Toshima, Kita ward, Tokyo, and Ouji, of the same ward), allegedly include the atmospheric ghost lights that continuously appear and quiver and shake around in the darkness is called “kitsune no yomeiri,” –the phenomenon is counted as one of the “seven mysteries of Toshima” told about in this village.

 

The superhuman and supernatural

Stories of marriages between foxes that were shown to humans are disseminated country-wide.

One such example, was the folk legend of Sōka, Saitama prefecture, in the Sengoku period, where a certain woman promised to marry with her lover, but who died to an illness, and foxes were said to have been inspired by the regretfulness of this situation … into holding the fox’s wedding procession spotted taking place near the woman’s grave.  Also, according to a folktale in the Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture), there is a story where when an old man helped a little fox, he was eventually greeted by the wedding procession of the fox when it grew mature, and as a gift of thinks to the old man, he was taken along it. In stories of weddings like these, natural phenomena like those written about above as well as supernatural “kitsune no yomeiri,” function like stage settings, and weddings that take place in the day frequently take place in a sunshower, and those that take place at night frequently take place among atmospheric ghost lights.

There are various stories of strange wedding processions that were witnessed, and recorded, especially in old Edo literature which involved sightings of actual foxes, like in the essay “Konjaku Yōdan Shū” (今昔妖談集) of Kan’ei period of one taking place in Takemachi, in the Honjo area of Edo, as well as the written work “Edo Chirihiroi” (江戸塵拾) where one was seen at the Hacchō canal in Edo, as well as the kaidan collection “Kaidan Oi no Tsue” (怪談老の杖) of the Kansei period where one was seen in the village of Kanda, Kōzuke (now Gunma Prefecture).

The fox myths, as linked to the Inari deity and Inari shrine agricultural tradition, where the fox is deified as a god of harvest OR a messenger of the grain deity Inari.

In the Hanaoka Tokufuku Inari-sha in Kudamatsu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the Inari festival held in November 3 every year, the “kitsune no yomeiri” is performed. This is not related to either atmospheric ghost lights or sunshowers, but is rather a re-enactment of a wedding between foxes, and is due to the efforts of volunteers after the old practice of praying for good harvest at the Inari festival at that shrine ceased in the chaos of the postwar period, and the re-enactment refers to the fact a white fox couple at that shrine was looking for something lost, and was deified as a god of good harvest and thriving business. The ones who perform as the fox couple are selected among the people of Kudamatsu, but it is said that as the female who plays the part of one of the newlywed is going to be blessed with a good match, there is a benefit to a marriage at that same shrine.

See Hatsu Uma Festival commemorates the day that Inari, the grain deity descended upon Mt Inari

The fox is associated with Inari, a grain deity who descended upon Mt Inari

The fox is associated with Inari, a grain deity who descended upon Mt Inari

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社?) is the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan. The shrine that sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari, is predominantly patronized in early Japan by merchants.

The earliest structures were built in 711 on the Inariyama hill in southwestern Kyoto, but the shrine was re-located in 816 on the request of the monk Kūkai to the current Fushimi-ku location in Kyoto. The shrine became the object of Imperial patronage during the early Heian period. In 965 Emperor Murakami decreed that messengers carry written accounts of important events to the guardian kami of Japan. Inari shrine was among the 16 shrines, these heihaku were initially presented to. From 1871 through 1946, Fushimi Inari-taisha was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社?), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

The clear link between foxes and Inari is documented in Edo period kusazōshi and kibyōshi such as “無物喰狐婿入” (illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi) published in 1785 (Tenmei 5), “Mukashigatari Kitsune Yomeiri” (昔語狐娶入) (illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa), and “Anasaka Kitsune Engumi” (穴賢狐縁組) (illustrated by Jippensha Ikku), as well as in Kamigata e-hon such as the “Shūgen Kitsune no Mukoiri” and “Ehon Atsumegusa,” there are depictions of “foxes weddings” of humanized foxes going through weddings. There was a genre of works called “yomeiri mono” (嫁入り物, “wedding things”) of humanized animals going through weddings, but foxes had the special characteristic of concretely having the name Inari no Kami attached to them. This is seen to be an indication that faith in the god Inari as well as “yomeiri mono” both deeply permeated among the common people.

The foxes’ legend as a cosmological myth of great antiquity and with a broader common origin

The most probable explanation for the fox’s wedding, and other fox, legends, is that it was an ancient agricultural and seasonal astronomical precessional rite, that was inherited from the Altaic-or Northern Chinese continental migrants who brought grain agriculture into the land, both millet and rice. From studies of archaeology and astronomical knowledge, fox legends are believed to have a four thousand year old history, associated with prehistoric earth and sky agricultural rites and a part of the ancients’ rich body of calendrical knowledge of cyclical-seasonal readings. Fox sculptures are known in archeaology from Turkey’s Gobleki Tepe site, and fox myths and temples are found in abundance pan-Mesoamerican and -South American, the fox temples featuring earth offerings and sightings of celestial bodies’ alignments and seasonal predictions.

A 2011 study, published in the Journal of Cosmology, reviews the “evidence associated with the fox representations [and] argues that the beginnings of hierarchy in Andean South America occurred with the rise of a priestly cult who maintained a complex knowledge of astronomy.” The article entitled “Ancient South American Cosmology: Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox”, excerpted below states,

“The mythology of the South American fox is associated with both the sky, into which he ascended, and more strongly, the earth below. He brought back carbohydrates from the heavens in the form of agricultural plants, and animal protein in the form of fish. His association with climate change and prediction of crop success is told in stories over much of South America. His constellation is visible to indigenous peoples in a number of South American countries. From coastal Peru to southern Ecuador, shamans still use the fox to make prophesies, and variations on the fox myths are still heard from Central to South… The first representations of the Andean fox were found at the site of Buena Vista, Chillón Valley, Perú.

4. ARCHAEOLOGY

The fox representations at Buena Vista are the earliest three‐dimensional art in the Americas (Benfer et al. 2010). These 4,000‐year‐ago acts marked a point where stories about the fox first became expressed visually in sculptures, murals, paintings, and architecture. The archaeological representations of the fox at Buena Vista are associated with temples where one could observe sky‐events and make offerings to the earth.

These associations of the fox with the earth and the sky persisted from the Late Preceramic until the time of the Incas and are still known today among Andean peoples, both Quechua‐speakers and Aymara‐speakers….

An Andean constellation of his personage is widely known throughout much of South America. The fox of contemporary SA indigenous peoples’ cosmology appears to be the same fox that by 2000 BC was first represented in art associated with monumental architecture at Buena Vista.”

“The rising of the Andean Fox constellation in the Milky Way marked seasonally important dates such as solstices (Benfer et al. 2010) and lunar standstills (Adkins and Benfer 2009) between 2200 and 2000 BC. So, too, the Maya constellations and the Milky Way marked solstices.”

The authors argues for a distant common origin of the fox myths, having found that there were common elements of Mesoamerican and South American origin fox myths, such as nocturnal associations, trickery and associations with earth and agricultural offerings and a relationship between the fox and the sacred mountain: “The South American fox monitors offerings to the earth, which are reviewed for adequacy by animated mountains”.

In Japan, with its adopted western Gregorian calendar, the calendrical associations of fox myths are for the most part forgotten, however, vestiges of the seasonal significance remain. For eg.,according to legends of Fukushima Prefecture, it is said that at evening on 10th day of the 10th month on the lunisolar calendar, if one wears a suribachi on one’s head, and sticks a wooden pestle in one’s waist, and stand under a date plum, it is possible to see a fox’s wedding, and in the Aichi Prefecture, it is said that if one spits in a well, intertwine one’s fingers and look through a gap in between, one is able to see a fox’s wedding.

Shapeshifters, a separate Indo-European or Indo-Iranian development

The same 2011 study emphasized that stories of shape-shifting foxes belong to a separate tradition and possibly a later Indo-European/Aryan development. This appears to accord with the Japanese situation where shapeshifting foxes are mostly medieval developments showing diversified late Silk Road Eurasian influences.

There are also stories of weddings not just between foxes, but also between a human male and a female fox, and a representative work, which also became a ningyō jōruri, is the story about the birth of the Heian period onmyoji, Abe no Seimei in Kuzunoha. There is also a similar tale in the Nihonkoku Genpō Zen’aku Ryōiki, as well as in the “Tonegawa Zushi” (利根川図志) a topography book published in 1857 (Ansei).  The town of Onabake (女化, literally meaning “shapeshift into woman”) in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture got its name from this, and the a fox is deified in the Onabake Jinja in Ryūgasaki of the same prefecture.

Also, in the Konjaku Monogatarishū as well as the “Honchō Koji Innen Shū” (本朝故事因縁集) published in 1689 (Genroku 2) and the “Tamahahaki” (玉掃木) published in 1696 (Genroku 9), there is the story of a fox who appeared before a married man, shapeshifted and disguised as that person’s wife. Also, in the kaidan collection “Tonoigusa” (宿直草) published in 1677 (Enpō 5), there is the reverse story where a male fox fell in love with a female human, shapedshifted and disguised as that woman’s husband and intercourse, and resulted in the birth of children with atypical appearance.

See also She-Wolf, Were-Wolf Wives and wolf shrines of Japan

In Descended from Wolves: Wolf Symbolism, I draw upon the writings of Daniele Guizzo’s work, “”Blessed and cursed: Wolf”s totemism and tabooisation between the Caucasus and Iran“(p. 117~) says the fox was interchangeable with wolves in Iranic symbolism and the shapeshifting and other wolf attributes were indistinguishable in the Iranian and Caucasian world, — to show that wolves, werewolves originated in a Proto-Indo-European or Aryan homeland and moved westwards, from early Turk-Mongol centres, while the fox shapeshifter can be traced out of Iranic Central Asian dispersing through eastwards in East Asian cultural spheres (through China, Korea and Japan), perhaps in tandem with the spread of millet and rice agriculture (foxes’ tails are often compare with millet).

Finally, in Myths and Legends from Korea: An Annotated Compendium of Ancient and Modern Materials (edited by James Huntley Grayson) at pp.396-7 the Korean Fox Wife tale is compared with its counterpart Fox Wife tale from Japan, and at the same time, it is suggested from the background of the next tale of the fox who became the Empress of China, that the fox-ancestry or fox-descent tales of both Korea and Japan originate from Chinese sources [which in turn may have originated from Iranic or Dravidian sources), and are a variant of the Mongolic wolf-descent tales. The three Chinese-Korean-Japanese mythic cultural spheres are clearly related, for they share the same mythical nine-tailed fox iconography with genealogical significance (and therefore possibly the same royal bloodlines?). Korean tales, however, tend to portray the fox mountain spirit as evil, while foxes are more often than not regarded as benevolent by the Japanese.  History books like Book of Zhou and story collections like Extensive Records of the Taiping Era, depict the nine-tailed fox as a beast of fortune. Sent by the heavens, the nine-tailed fox was seen as a sign of fortune, peace and luck. In the Han dynasty, it is the protector of royal blood.

Nine-tailed fox from the Qing period Shanghaijing.

Nine-tailed fox from the Qing period Shanghaijing.

Source and references:

“Ancient South American Cosmology:
Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox”, Journal of Cosmology, 2011

Kitsune-bi (Yokai.com)

Wikipedia entry “kitsune no yomeiri

For more resources on foxwives and nine-tailed foxes and more, see this page

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