NATURE IN SHORT / Foxes play spiritual, shape-shifting roles in Japanese society

By Kevin Short

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri Columnist

There I was, sitting in my local Starbucks sipping a soy latte and sketching some leaves and flowers that I had just collected. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a gorgeous lady–tall, lithe, and decked out in the latest style of short tight dress and 15-centimeter-high heel sandals–appeared at my table. “May I join you?” she asked. As if lost in a dream I quickly made space for her. She sat down, smiling as she crossed her long tanned legs. “Would you like something to drink?” I inquired. She nodded her head and I slid entranced up to the counter. A few minutes later, I returned with a 520 yen tall-size matcha creme frappuccino, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. On the table were a few long strands of soft reddish-brown hair.

Later, I told this story to an elderly farmer friend of mine. He seemed not the least bit surprised. “That was clearly a yo-gitsune.,” he assured me.

Yo-gitsune are fairy foxes, once as common across the Japanese countryside as their normal animal counterparts. In fact, red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are one of the world’s most widespread and successful carnivores. Their range includes almost all of the Eurasian and North American continents, and they live in habitats that vary from arctic tundra to full desert. The secret of their success is adaptability. They are intelligent, curious, and quick to take advantage of new feeding opportunities, especially in agricultural and even suburban landscapes.

Zoologists recognize several dozen subspecies of red fox, two of which are found here in Japan. The Ezo red fox, or kita-kitsune (V.v. schrencki) lives on Hokkaido, and the Japanese red fox, or hondo-gitsune (V.v. japonica) on Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku.

The Japanese red fox, usually just called kitsune, feeds on all sorts of small to medium-size animal prey, including insects, crabs, frogs, birds and mice and other rodents. One of their favorite prey is the Japanese hare. Both these animals are speed demons, but the fox is just a wee bit faster. Foxes also eat a variety of fruits and berries, and will raid crops, and scavenge animal carcasses and even human garbage.

Foxes breed in underground dens, which they dig themselves. Litters usually consist of three to five pups, which stay with their mother, learning the tricks of survival, until their first autumn. Most of the pups then set out on their own, but some females may remain behind to help their mother raise a new set of pups the following spring.

Foxes are among the great perennial stars of Japanese folklore. To begin with, they are considered to be familiar spirits serving the immensely popular rice deity Inari. A set of two stone foxes stand watch in front of every Inari shrine. Some folklorists believe that foxes became associated with rice farming because of their role in controlling mice, hares and other agricultural pests. In the past farmers would even leave out food to attract foxes to their rice paddies. Foxes are thought to be especially fond of abura-age, thin slices of deep-fried tofu soy bean paste. Pockets of abura-age stuffed with rice are known as Inari-zushi.

In contrast to this favorable agricultural image, foxes have also been traditionally imagined as clever tricksters and shape-shifters. These yo-gitsune can be encountered in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Like cats and many other Japanese fairy animals, their magical powers grow stronger with age. After living for a century or two, yo-gitsune become able to possess people, causing illness or insanity, and also to temporarily shape-shift into incredibly glamorous women. Stories abound of men falling hopelessly in love with and marrying these “foxy ladies.”

In one famous story, a 10th-century nobleman saves a fox from a mob bent on killing it for its liver. A few days later, a beautiful woman mysteriously appears at his door. They fall madly in love, get married and have a son. Three years later, the woman suddenly disappears, leaving a note explaining to her husband that she was really just the fox whose life he had saved. Their son grows up to be Abe no Seimei, the famous Onmyoji Yin-Yang wizard who protects the imperial court and the capital city from all sorts of wicked spells and disasters.

After living for a full millennium, fairy foxes may attain a formidable style with nine tails. Nine-tail foxes, or Kyubi no Kitsune, are of Chinese origin, but have also been active in Japan as well. During the Edo period (1603-1867), motifs depicting heroes ridding the land of these often ill-tempered nine-tail foxes were widely adopted into traditional theater, literature and art.

Until quite recently, mental illnesses and emotional instability were frequently attributed to possession by fox spirits, especially in isolated rural villages. Even more frightening, there are families, called tsukimono-mochi, which are rumored to keep tiny fox spirits in vases or bamboo tubes. These spirits can be sent out on various missions, such as searching for gold or treasure, stealing, spying on people, or just causing all sorts of trouble and misfortune. The secrets of caring for and controlling these fox spirits, or in some cases similar dog or weasel spirits, are passed down from generation to generation among women of the household. Families which are rumored to possess fox spirits are feared and shunned.

Another peculiarity of fairy foxes is that they tend to emit strange lights at night. One very famous spot for kitsune-bi fox-fire is the Inari shrine at Oji in Kita Ward, Tokyo. Every New Year’s Eve foxes from all over the Kanto region are believed to assemble here under an ancient hackberry tree. The local farmers predict the yields of the coming season’s crops by the number of glowing lights they count.

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Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

(Daily Yomiuri, May. 10, 2012)

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