Kitsune, the Japanese Fox with Multiple Powers

June 02, 2021 7 min read

kitsune

An iconic creature of Japanese folklore, the Kitsune is a particularly popular magical animal in Japan.

The Kitsune (狐) belongs to the yokai family - a family of supernatural Japanese creatures. As a polymorphous animal, it has many different powers, including the ability to take on the appearance of a young woman.

It is believed to be the messenger of Inari, goddess of rice and trade. Of cunning nature, this yokai loves playing tricks on humans.

Learn more about this bewitching creature and its legends in this article. 🤩

🦊 History of the Kitsune

origins of the kitsune

Illustrations by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Left: Goddess Inari accompanied by her messenger fox / Right: Prince Hanzoku frightened by a kitsune. 

The term kitsune can be translated as "fox" or "fox spirit" in Japanese. According to some scientists, this yokai was born out of ancient legends of Chinese, Korean and Indian origin before being integrated into Japanese folklore.

The nine-tailed fox spirit was called Huli Jing in China and Kumiho in Korea. In addition, this creature is also similar to the Indian Rakshaka who also possessed powers of illusion and a mischievous character. However, some Japanese think that the Kitsune comes from an indigenous concept.

Moreover, the fox has appeared as early as in the 11th century in the Konjaku Monogatari, a Japanese collection of Asian folk tales. It is believed that foxes and humans lived together in harmony in ancient Japan. That's why, unlike its Chinese and Korean counterparts, the Kitsune is considered benevolent in the eyes of Japanese culture since the 9th century, just like its cousin the Tanuki.

Although the true origins of the Kitsune are rather vague, it is the subject of many legends and beliefs in Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism. In some stories, it is said to have real magical powers and a very high intelligence.  🤓

💥 The magical powers of the Kitsune

kitsune powers

left : Art by ©yuchenghong / right : Unknown artist

The kitsune yokai has a similar appearance to the common fox, however it has multiple tails. To know the age of the Kitsune, you just have to count the number of tails it has. Every hundred years, this mythical creature grows a new tail. A Kitsune can have up to nine tails, a sign of advanced experience and wisdom. The Kitsune is covered with a white fur.

Also, as the years go by, its magical powers increase. Thus, at the age of 100, it gains the power of metamorphosis and can take on a human form, usually that of an attractive young woman. The yokai is therefore often associated with a female figure.

Extremely intelligent and mischievous, the fox woman bewitches men and enjoys playing tricks on them. Often benevolent, she can sometimes become evil, depending on the situation. It is important to know that she is very sensitive and resentful. Therefore, be careful not to offend her if you don't want her to put a terrible curse on you. 😨 On the other hand, she turns out to be very faithful and sincere. In general she is a fair soul that brings good things if one respects her.

Upon reaching a mature age, the Kitsune becomes extremely powerful and can take on any appearance. He has the power to read minds, to take possession of minds as well as dreams. Thus, the fantastic creature can manipulate humans and influence their destinies.

Some very powerful Kitsune have the ability to predict the future and modulate time and space. Lastly, the celestial fox is also known to be the master of illusion. It is told that it can create fire by rubbing its tails. 🔥

Different types of Kitsune

types of kitsune

Illustrations by Matthew Meyer. Left side: Myôbu / Right side: Nogitsune.

There exist various types of Kitsune, related to the 13 elements of Japanese mythology such as sky, fire, earth, void, etc. It is believed that each fox is connected to a particular element and that this element will determine its temperament.

In some legends, Kitsune wears a necklace of 12 beads around its neck to symbolize these elements. The 13th being represented by the creature itself.

Among the most popular types of Kitsune are the Myobu and the Nogitsune.

  • The Myôbu are benevolent Kitsune linked to the celestial element and to the deity Inari. Meeting them is a sign of good omen.
  • Related to the void element, the Nogitsune are particularly mischievous, but not necessarily malicious. However, be careful not to attract their anger.

The Bakemono Kitsune are ghosts. After their death, these magical foxes have the choice to either sacrifice one of their tails in order to return to Earth or to transform into a spirit. This is somewhat equivalent to the cat and its 9 lives.

Popular legends regarding the Kitsune

Some beliefs say that women who go out alone at dusk are in reality foxes. 🦊

Several myths report that these women sometimes have difficulties in hiding their true nature. They fear their enemies, the dogs and the men of faith, who are said to have the power to unmask them. Moreover, the reflection of the mirror or the influence of alcohol would reveal their true identity. So, if you doubt the nature of your girlfriends, you know what you have to do. 😉

According to the Japanese imagination, when rain starts falling on a sunny day, it means that a marriage between a kitsune and a human has taken place. This is usually a sign of good omen. The children born from this union would have a human appearance with some powers inherited from their mother. One of the most popular legends is that of Kuzunoha.

The legend of Kitsune Kuzunoha, a beautiful story

legend of kuzunoha

Representations of the Kitsune Kuzunoha. Left side by Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Right side by Matthew Meyer.

A young nobleman, Abe no Yasuna, is on his way to visit a shrine in Shinoda, in Settsu Province, when he encounters a young military commissioner who is hunting foxes in order to obtain their livers for use as medicine. Yasuna battles the hunter, sustaining several wounds, and sets free the white fox he had trapped.

Later, a beautiful woman named Kuzunoha helps Yasuna to return to his home. She is the fox he saved, adopting human form in order to tend to his wounds. He falls in love with her and they marry. She bears him a child, Seimei, who proves prodigiously clever. Kuzunoha realizes that her son has inherited part of her supernatural power.

Several years later, while Kuzunoha is viewing some chrysanthemums, her son catches sight of the tip of her tail. Her true nature revealed, Kuzunoha prepares to return to her life in the wild. She leaves behind a farewell poem, asking her husband Yasuna to come to see her in Shinoda Forest.

Yasuna and his son search for Kuzunoha, and eventually she appears to them as a fox. Revealing that she is the kami, or spirit, of Shinoda Shrine, she gives her son Seimei a gift, allowing him to understand the language of animals.

The legend of Kitsune Tamamo no Mae, a dark story

tamamo no mae legend

Representations of the Kitsune Tamamo no Mae. Left side by Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Right side by Matthew Meyer.

Another legend tells the story of a beautiful and intelligent young woman who had bewitched the emperor Toba no In and his son.

The mysterious Tamamo no Mae had an amazing culture despite her young age. Her sharp mind, impeccable appearance, and unparalleled beauty dazzled the court and resulted in her being nicknamed the Lady of Shining Jewels.

One day, the emperor and his son both fell seriously ill without explanation. After summoning several priests and testing many remedies without success, they called an astrologer to understand the origin of their illness.

Abe no Yasuchika, who also had the power of exorcism, soon discovered the true identity of Tamamo no Mae. The beautiful young woman turned out to be a particularly evil nine-tailed fox.

A hunt was organized in order to execute the dangerous creature, who had escaped. After being killed by an arrow, the fox turned into a cursed stone that had the power to kill anyone who touched it.

In another legend, Tamamo no Mae was a benevolent spirit who dispelled the forces of evil. A chime always announced its arrival by ringing 13 times, symbolizing the 13 elements of the mythology.

Meaning of Kitsune in Japanese culture

kitsune shrine

Kitsune statues at Toyokawa Inari Temple, Aichi Prefecture.

Kitsune are known as the guardians and messengers of Inari. Therefore, their statues are found in shrines of the Shinto deity. Worshipped by the Japanese, they are also considered as protective kami, especially against evil spirits.

Japanese artists and the Kabuki theater regularly refer to the 9-tailed fox in their creations. However, the fact that the Kitsune is that famous is partly due to manga, anime as well as video games which have been largely inspired by the myth in its human or animal form.

In the famous anime movie Naruto, the character of Kyûbi represents a fox spirit which takes possession of the hero. Later on, the Pokémon anime released Vulpix and Ninetales, two versions derived from the Kitsune. Moreover, the fox woman is featured in several video games such as League of Legends - to the delight of many gamers.

kitsune in pop culture

Top: Kyûbi in Naruto / Bottom left: Pokémon Ninetales / Bottom right: Pokémon Vulpix.

Meaning of the Kitsune mask

If you have followed this far, you will have understood that the Kitsunes are the messengers of the goddess Inari. As such, they are themselves worshipped as kami (Shinto deities). Before the harvest period, shrines ⛩️ that are dedicated to the goddess of rice and fertility organize celebrations where participants may wear Kitsune masks. The purpose being to attract good favor from the deities to secure a good harvest. 🌾

However, the most likely place to wear your fox mask is during the matsuri (popular Japanese festivals).

The most well-known festival is the Oji Kitsune no Gyoretsu. This event takes place in Tokyo on New Year's Eve and brings together hundreds of people dressed up or made up as foxes.  The parade moves to the Oji shrine for the first prayer of the year.

Why so? You might ask. This tradition is based on a legend according to which, each year, the Kitsunes gather under a tree to welcome the coming new year. Afterwards, they take the form of humans dressed as Kitsune to sneak into the Oji Shrine for the first visit of the year. Hey, no wonder they are called " sly as a fox". 😄

If you're nearby at this time of year, this is a great opportunity to have an unforgettable New Year's Eve and maybe, who knows, spot a few Kitsunes hidden in the crowd 😉

kitsune mask

Last but not least, the Kitsune mask is also used in theater, where many kabuki shows are still staging some folk tales around this fox.

The 9-tailed fox, a magical creature both mysterious and fascinating, is a master of cunning and has taken over Japanese folklore. The popularity of the Kitsune continues to grow year after year in the land of the rising sun as in the rest of the world.

Cover image : Artwork by Anthony Christou. (©AchristouArt)


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