Very important and popular yōkai from Japanese mythology, the Kitsune are probably one of the most emblematic creatures that you may have encountered in your life. What, you don't know what is the Kitsune? Here is a little introduction:
The Kitsune (狐) is a mythical creature from Japanese Folklore. They are the servitor of the God Inari, and are part of the second type of Yōkai called the Ōbake and Bakemono which are creatures that can switch their appearances into animals and humans (mostly women). Furthermore, the Kitsune is an iconic figure in Japanese mythology, as the fox is believed to be an intelligent being with magical abilities that increase with age, as does its knowledge.
Full of myths and full of stories, discover today with us what is a Kitsune and all the secrets behind this amazing creature from Japan! But first, let's start with the basics.
What does Kitsune mean?
The word Kitsune means literally "Fox" or "Fox Spirit" and is the Japanese word for the common Fox species in Japan. The Kanji for Kitsune is 狐 and the Hiragana are ちちに.
The word Kitsune was originally an onomatopoeia: "Kitsu" representing the howl of the fox, and "ne" an affective suffix. Eventually, the use of Kitsu to represent the fox took on an archaic meaning, since the fox's howl is now represented as kon kon or gon gon in modern Japanese language.
How to pronounce Kitsune?
You should pronounce Kitsune exactly how it is written as [kì-tsú-né]
According to research, we can date the origins and first mentions of the Kitsune myth from both foreign sources and native Japanese ideas dating back to about the 5th century B.C. Fox myths also appear in Chinese, Korean, Greek and Indian culture. Many of these stories are recorded in the Konjaku Monogatari, a collection of Chinese, Indian and Japanese narratives from the 11th century.
In these texts, we learn that the Kitsune is more than just a fox, it's a spirit of the forest, a magical entity, protective and dangerous, kind and malicious at the same time. It is a creature of light and darkness and it is precisely this mysterious duality that makes it so interesting, and not only in Japan; its figure has given rise to numerous stories and legends in other countries such as in China and Korea.
However, differences can be observed in the different cultures of different countries; for example, in the case of the kumiho, this creature is mostly seen as an evil being, as opposed to its Japanese counterpart.
In Japan, Kitsune means literally fox, and represents a forest spirit in the form of a fox that takes care of the forests and the villages. Its origin dates back to ancient Japan, when these animals lived in harmony with humans, giving rise to countless legends.
Kitsune are an important figure in Japanese mythology, as the fox is believed to be an intelligent being with magical abilities that increase with age, as does his knowledge. The older he gets, the wiser and more powerful he is, as his number of tails increases, reaching nine in total as the most powerful of them.
Other studies claim that the Kitsune is based on Pañcha tantra (India, 3rd century B.C.), which derives from an adaptation of Aesop's Fables (Greece, 6th century B.C.), which were spread to China and Korea, and ultimately to Japan. In contrast, Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese Kitsune acquired positive attributes around the 4th century, and that only in China and Korea did negative attributes arise.
Based on a collection of 16th century books entitled Nihon Ryakki, Nozaki found out that foxes and humans lived closely correlated in ancient Japan, resulting in the emergence of indigenous legends about Kitsune.
Researcher Karen Smyers, a specialist in the myth of the god Inari, mentions that the idea of the fox as a seductive being to humans, and the connection of fox myths in Buddhism, was incorporated into Japanese folklore through Chinese stories, although she also argues that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japanese culture.
What does a Kitsune look like?
As explained previously, a Kitsune is a mythical Japanese Fox from Japanese Folklore. Kitsune can be either male or female, and, usually, can take the form of Japanese women, young and old.
Here are the main physical characteristics that Kitsune have according to the literature that we can refer to from ancient Japan.
In Japanese mythology, Kitsune are depicted with five different colors with which one of them its own meaning:
Red is the color of the most common Kitsune foxes in Japanese Folklore. They are known to be sometimes friendly, sometimes not.
Black Kitsune are known for bringing good fortune. If someone sees a black fox, it means that good harvest is incoming this year and that business will be good. Most of the times, black foxes are not considered bad unless the Kitsune is acting in a way that is considered aggressive or maleficient.
Gold Kitsune are very intelligent and known as very patient and understanding. Some stories say that gold foxes can help sick people are those in danger.
As the golden, silver Kitsune are known to be very intelligent. They are also recognized to be the messengers and companions of Inari, the Kami (god) of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake, of agriculture and industry.
White Kitsune have different meanings, but are mostly seen as nuisance. They can mean death as seeing a white fox out of season meant that a horrible sickness was coming. To be specific, white foxes are known to be carriers of tape worms which can contaminate water suppliers and generate sickness.
Kitsune faces are mostly not as different as those of common foxes. They have a long and thin snout with whiskers on both sides.
Same as the face, Kitsune do look like as average foxes regards to their body. Only distinction may be the number of tails that they have.
Most Kitsune in Japanese Folklore are known to have one, five, seven, and up to nine tails. However, the legends say that the number of tails may vary depending of the strength and age of the Kitsune as some historians think that a fox can grow an additional tail after every 100 years. However, when a Kitsune reaches 9 tails, its fur becomes white or gold.
Why do Kitsune have 9 tails?
The reason why Kitsune have up to 9 tails is to determine different characteristics. The more tails they have, the older, wiser and more powerful they are.
Most Kitsune eyes are known to be silver, white or gold. There isn't any meaning on why they have each one of these colors.
Same as the common foxes, Kitsune have two furred pointed ears to ear and understand the world.
According to the Japanese Mythology, there is a classification of different types of Kitsune separating the good and bad ones.
1. Zenko Kitsune
Zenko Kitsune (善狐, literally good foxes and sometimes called Inari foxes) are known to be celestial foxes associated with the God of fertility Inari. They are benevolent celestial foxes whose goal is to protect the humans of bad spirits.
2. Yako Kitsune
Yako Kitsune (野狐, literally field foxes and also called Nogitsune) are the antithesis of the Zenko. They are known to be malicious and mischievous.
Moreover, some local myths in Japan add further types of Kitsune in this classification such as the ninko which is considered as being an invisible fox spirit that human beings can only perceive when it possesses them. Another tradition classifies Kitsune into one of thirteen types defined by which supernatural abilities the Kitsune possesses.
3. Elemental Kitsune
In addition to the previous classification, we can find 13 different types Kitsune each one representing an element of Nature; we call them Elemental Kitsune.
The Kitsune's temperament is therefore influenced by the element to which they are connected. However, since the Kitsune are spirits, their notions of right and wrong are based on what they think is right or wrong. Thus their behavior changes depending on how they are treated.
Moreover, Kitsune are said to have a necklace of 12 beads that they wear around their necks according to some Japanese legends. This necklace is said to symbolize the elements of mythology, the 13th element being symbolized by the creature itself. Kitsune are very famous mythological creatures in Japanese folklore. There are also some that stand out from the rest.
Here is a list of all 13 of them:
- Tengoku, the Kitsune that represents Heaven, Celestial, Light, and Prime
- Kukan, the Kitsune that represents the Darknesss
- Kaze, the Wind Kitsune
- Seishin, the spirit Kitsune
- Kasai, the fire Kitsune
- Chikyu, the earth Kitsune
- Kawa, the Kitsune that represents the Rivers
- Umi, the Kitsune that represents the Oceans
- Yama, the Kitsune that represents the Mountains
- Mori, the Kitsune that represents the Forests
- Sanda, the Kitsune that represents the Thunder
- Jikan, the Kitsune that represents the Time
Ongaku, the Kitsune that represents theMusic and Sounds
Among its many abilities, Kitsune are known for possessing superior intelligence, long life and magical powers. Some legends speak of Kitsune so powerful that they can bend time and space, drive people mad or take on fantastic forms. Other Kitsune have characteristics similar to vampires and feed on the life energy or spirit of people.
Here is a list of the most important Kitsune abilities that you should know:
Kitsune are known to be shapeshifter which means that they are able to change their appearance into animals and humans the moment they reach 100 years old and even gain the ability to see and hear anything happening anywhere in the world.
To change its shape, the fox needs to place reeds, a broadleaf or a skull over its head. A common medieval Japan belief was that if you encountered a woman alone on a dark night, then it was likely to be a fox. Indeed, a fox-faced woman with close-set eyes and high cheekbones was said to be attractive.
When transformed, Kitsune often gets into mischief with people, but as an animal its role is that of a guardian. According to some legends, Kitsune find it difficult to hide their tails when they transform into people, and their shadows maintain the fox's form, which gives away their true identity.
Legend has it that they are mischievous, attacking overly proud samurai, greedy merchants and pretentious commoners, while the more wicked ones abuse poor merchants and farmers or devout Buddhist monks. They sometimes presented themselves as tricksters, with variations ranging from mischievous to malevolent beings.
Their victims were usually male; for women were possessed. For example, the Kitsune devise to use Kitsune-bi to lead travelers astray as a form of wildfire. Another Kitsune tactic is to confuse their target with illusions or visions. Other tricks used by trickster Kitsune include seduction, stealing food, humiliating the arrogant or retaliating with insults.
Kitsunetsuki (狐憑き, 狐付き), sometimes also written Kitsune-tsuki, means literally "the state of being possessed by a fox." The stories explain us that Kitsune can take over a victim's body, most of the times that of a young woman, by entering through her breasts. Although foxes in folklore can possess their victims of their own free will, they can also do this because of incantations cast on the victim.
When inside of a woman's body, Kitsune can control their victim's behaviour as they want. However sometimes, if the possession isn't perfect, the victim's body can be altered such as her face that can look just like that of a fox. Some stories even say that Kitsune had high difficulty hiding their tails, with people being able to see them if the Kitsune became drunk or careless.
- Craving for typical fox food such as Azuki Beans (Azukimeshi), tofu and certain types of wild berries
- Agitation and loss of temper
- Apathy and depression
- Aversion to eye contact
Here is a little explanation from Lafcadio Hearn, a Japanese writer who wrote famous books about Japanese Culture, and who also wrote about this subject:
In Japan, Kitsunetsuki was seen as a disease since the Heian period (794 to 1185) and remained a diagnosis of mental illness until the early 20th century. Possession was the explanation for the behavior of afflicted individuals. In the late 19th century, Dr. Shunichi Shimamura noted that physical illnesses that caused fever were often associated with cases of Kitsunetsuki. A common characteristic of Kitsunetsuki to all the patients is that, once released from possession, the victim can never again eat tofu or any food dedicated to foxes.
3. Hoshi no Tama
Kitsune Star ball called Hoshi no tama in Japan ( ほしのたま, lit. Star Ball) is an orb that the Kitsune carries around with him. In the past, there were stories that told that these magical balls could be the source of Kitsune's magical powers and were therefore very coveted.
Indeed, when they aren't transformed into a human or aren't possessing someome's body, it seems that Kitsune keep their Star Ball in their mouth or carry them on one of its tail. As jewels are a common symbol of the god Inari, it's an important symbolism aspect that Kitsune's powers is materialized like this.
Moreover, some historians say that the Hoshi no tama hold the Kitsune's soul which is the reason why they can't be separated from it for too long. Furthermore, it seems that if a human could obtain it, it would be promised a wish or protection by the Kitsune in exchange for its return.
An old Japanese story about a man who succeed in recovering a Star Ball during the 12th-century tells us:
"Confound you!" snapped the fox. "Give me back my ball!" The man ignored its pleas till finally it said tearfully, "All right, you've got the ball, but you don't know how to keep it. It won't be any good to you. For me, it's a terrible loss. I tell you, if you don't give it back, I'll be your enemy forever. If you do give it back though, I'll stick to you like a protector god."
After returning the Hoshi no tama to the Kitsune, the man was granted the protection of the Fox. Later that year, as the man was passing by a band of armed robbers, the same fox appeared and saved him from a certain death.
What does a Kitsune symbolize in Japan?
The significance of the Kitsune makes it one of the most intriguing creatures in Japanese folklore. There’s no doubt that foxes are clever, beautiful animals that will continue to interest us for many years to come.
The duality of the Kitsune is also very interesting because they are portrayed as guardians and tricksters at the same time.
As mentioned several times, Kitsune are associated with the Shinto god of fertility and fortune, Inari. Thus, you will find many of their statues populating the shrines of the Shinto deity. The Kitsune of Inari have white fur and their duty is to watch over the Temples and its surroundings and to help the people. They are very venerated by Japanese people (subject to many offerings).
Originally, Kitsune were Inari’s messengers and there are shrines dedicated to them all over Japan. They have been worshipped as kami. Inari’s Kitsune were white and viewed as a sign of good luck.
In Feudal Japanese, they were known to protect Inari’s shrines and warded off evil.
Contrastingly, Kitsune are also presented as mischievous and relish in tormenting people. They may lead travelers astray or confound them with illusions. The most wicked fox spirits can be vengeful and may use different tactics such as seduction or theft.
A traditional game is named after Kitsune called Kitsune-ken, which means fox-fist. It’s meant to symbolise the power that Kitsune have over people and is similar to rock, paper, scissors. However, the three motions represent a fox, hunter and a village headman. The headman defeats the hunter because he outranks him, the hunter beats the fox because he shoots it and the fox beats the headman because it bewitches him.
In one of the main religions of Japan which is the Shinto religion, the spirit of the Japanese fox is seen as the messenger of Inari. Inari is the goddess of fertility, rice, agriculture and industry. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Inari shrines, you will see that they have fox statues.
Thus, for the appeasement of Inari's messengers, worshippers offer offerings and gifts such as rice, sake and other foods. Inarizushi (which is a sweet fried tofu, stuffed with rice) is the most popular offering to the Kitsune. In Japan, 40% of the temples are dedicated to Inari and the Kitsune. Moreover, these Shinto temples are recognizable by their red Torii gates located at the entrance.
Finally, other beliefs also associate Kitsune Spirit with the Kimon (the Japanese concept of the demonic door). It would be the northeast direction through which the evil spirits would pass according to the Japanese folklore. Thus, the Kitsune would have the power to dispel the evil that comes from the Kimon and would act as guardians of these portals.
Kitsune Myths and Legends
In Japanese culture, there are lots of Kitsune myths and legends to discover.
For example, according to some Japanese beliefs, women who leave their homes alone at dusk are considered to be foxes are being possessed by a Fox's spirit.
Moreover, female foxes have difficulty hiding their natures and would be vulnerable to magical weapons and to religion. Thus, dogs or even men of faith (they would have the ability to reveal their true faces because they are immune to their powers) have the ability to cancel their bewitchments and thus show their true faces. Also, the reflection of mirrors or the influence of alcohol would allow to lift the veil on their true identities.
Finally, a legend says that if rain starts to fall on a sunny day, it would mean that a Kitsune and a human are getting married (this phenomenon is called Kitsune no Yomeiri or "fox wedding", which is also a good omen). If this union produces children, their offspring would have a human appearance while inheriting certain powers from their mother.
Kitsune in Pop Culture
In our modern world, Kitsunes have become really entwined in any sort of art. Portrayed as female seductresses who love alcohol in anime or as monsters and guardians in videos games, here are some of the most known Kitsune representation in Pop culture.
Kitsune Anime Representation
- In Pokemon, Kitsune are beautifully represented by two species that are Vulpix, a red Kitsune that only possesses 6 tails and its evolution Ninetales that possesses 9 tails. Ninetales has several Kitsune characteristics, including a large number of tails and mystical powers.
- In Naruto, Kurama, the Nine Tailed Fox, is a red Kitsune with 9 tails that is sealed inside the main protagonist body of the manga. When Naruto looses its control over Kurama, the Kitsune can take over its body and act on its will, which is an accurate representation of Kitsunetsuki.
- In Digimon, Renamon and its evolved forms have a chara design highly inspired the Kitsune of Japanese Folklore
- In Inukami, the character named Yoko is a kitsune.
- In Inuyasha, Kagome has a young Kitsune as a friend
Kitsune Representation in Video Games
- Animal Crossing
- The Legend of Zelda
Kitsune Representation in Movies and Tv Shows
- Teen Wolf
- Bento Monogatari
Kitsune Mask Meaning
Kitsune masks means lots of things in the Land of the Rising Sun. Used as decorative accessories theatrical performances nowadays, they were mostly worn in the past by Japanese people to pray the god Inari.
Kitsune masks find their origin during the times of samurais, geisha and shinobi. Kitsune (being a fantastic and mythological spirit) as well as the torii doors, the cherry blossom, the katana sword or the kimono, are a symbol of the Japanese culture and is also closely linked to the religious practices of the Shinto belief.
For this reason, they are as honored as Kami, which are Shinto deities. So, before the beginning of the harvest season, the Japanese carry out celebrations in the shrines of the goddess Inari. During these celebrations, participants have the opportunity to wear Kitsune masks to pay homage to them and thus attract their good graces to enjoy a bountiful harvest.
During the matsuri, which are very popular Japanese festivals, you will have more chance to wear your fox mask. In the same way, the Oji Kitsune no Gyretsu which literally translates as "Oji fox parade" is a very popular festival. This parade takes place in Tokyo during the New Year's Eve to gather a big crowd who dress up as Kitsune or at least make up like them. To perform the first prayer of the year, the carnival marches to the Oji shrine.
According to Japanese legend, this tradition is to help the Kitsune to disguise themselves so that they can have their meeting to welcome the New Year. They will be able to mingle with the crowd by taking on a human appearance disguised as a Kitsune and then go to the Oji Shrine.
Kitsune Tattoo Meaning
Among the very wide catalog of animals, creatures and symbols that could be inked on a person's skin, owning a Kitsune Tattoo meant something strong.
Indeed, having a Kitsune tattoo or a Kitsune Mask tattoo on your body means that you own the two most important characteristics of a Japanese Fox.
- You're benevolent and respectful to the deities and you put the welfare of your loved ones above all else
- Your duality offers you the ability of being bad with certain type of person making you unpredictable and smart
These two qualities were very important to be called a ferocious Yukaza at the time, that's why lots of them worn Kitsune tattoos on their arms and back.
Common questions about Kitsune
Are Kitsune Real?
If you're asking yourself if do Kitsunes exist, the quick answer is Yes and No. Kitsune, although very popular in Japan and all over the world, remain above all symbolic creatures that exist only in the folk imagination of Japanese culture.
It is therefore very difficult to accept their existence since no living specimen has been seen for many centuries. But everyone is free to appreciate or not their existence whether it is symbolic or physical.
Are Kitsune evil?
Are Kitsune bad? Well, as you can see from the previous chapters, it depends.
In Japanese folklore, most of the Kitsunes are benevolent and seen as the servitors of the Inari which is a the god of fertility. Therefore, as farmers cherish Inari, they also cherish the Kitsune which are protectors of the human world.
However, as seen previously, it exists some evil Kitsune called Nogitsune which are not friendly as they can possess humans and are known to bring chaos.
What do Kitsune eat?
Kitsune can eat almost everything and have a very diversified diet consisting of grains, nuts and any sort of meat. However, some historians say that when a Kitsune is possessing a human, his diet varies and adjusts to that of the human.
How to kill a Kitsune?
As explained in our previous chapters, there are multiple ways to weaken a Kitsune and kill it.
1. Steal its Star Ball
Stealing its star ball is the less violent way to kill a Kitsune. Indeed, if you remember correctly, Star balls host a huge part of a Kitsune's power and soul. So if you succeed on recovering it, the Kitsune will die slowly in a few days.
2. Cut its tails
A common legend says that some warriors succeed in killing a Kitsune by cutting its tails. Indeed, the more tails the Kitsune has, the more powerful it becomes. So, if you're able to cut off some of its tails, it could become weak enough to be killed with a sword by decapitation.