Kitsune: Coyote of the Orient

Watts Martin

An introduction

As a long-time fan of anthropomorphic animals and an online roleplayer, I’ve been aware of kitsune as “magic Japanese foxes” since the mid-’80s. In 1999, though, it seemed my roleplaying characters were all but tripping over kitsune. While this has subsided in the subsequent years, they’re still, if not common, not very hard to find. I realized that there was a second, sophisticated subculture of kitsune roleplaying in the midst of the larger field of anthropomorphic roleplaying.

Conversations led to a wealth of often-contradictory facts. Kitsune have varying numbers of tails, which indicate their rank in a celestial bureaucracy. Or they get a tail with each century of age. Or they get nine tails when they’re nine hundred years old. There is only one kitsune at a time with nine tails, who is the leader of all the kitsune. (Except there might be one with ten tails, who is the mother of all kitsune, or she might have a thousand tails.) Kitsune serve Inari, the rice god, in a rigid bureaucracy. Kitsune are tricksters with allegiance to no one. Kitsune are connected with elements, or with places. Kitsune may be vampiric. Kitsune are immortal, but they can be killed.

My curiosity was too piqued to let this go now—I had to find original sources. Naturally, I first looked on the Web, but surprisingly, there’s not much out there. I found a few modest collections of Japanese fox stories and a couple of sites written by roleplayers. One of these, “Foxtrot’s Research on Kitsune Lore,” is quite formidable. The author effectively fashioned a kitsune culture by weaving together retold fox stories, Shinto belief in kami (spirits), and other Oriental traditions. Foxtrot’s work seemed to account for some of the “modern” roleplayed kitsune, but not all of it.

From the few stories I’d found myself at that point, two things seemed evident. Many things in what I’d dubbed the “kitsune subculture” weren’t evident in the stories—while I couldn’t conclude these things weren’t part of Japanese folklore, I couldn’t conclude they were, either. The second thing was at least as intriguing to me: the kitsune stories bore striking resemblance to the stories of Old Man Coyote, the Native American trickster god.

For better or worse, my storyteller instincts had kicked in by that point. Over the last year or so, I’ve made an effort to get closer to the original sources. “We have come to feel that it is wrong to read without making notes,” naturalist and author Barry Lopez writes, “and our analysis has got us into trouble. We have lost the story in our quest for the character.” Lopez is writing about Coyote, but the thought applies to kitsune.

There is a modern Coyote story about an anthropologist who finds a coyote caught in a trap, and the coyote agrees to tell the anthropologist a long, real true story if he releases him. For the full length of a tape, the coyote tells a fabulous tale, and runs off when the tape runs out. When the anthropologist goes to play the tape for other professors, though, all that’s in the recorder is a few coyote droppings. Kitsune doesn’t want to be tagged, bagged and analyzed any more than Coyote does. This is an apology in advance if you’re looking for definitives: there aren’t any.

On a trickster’s trail

Trickster figures are nearly universal, from Coyote to kitsune to Br’er Rabbit. In North America, Coyote appears in various forms and shows different character aspects not only between tribes but often in different stories of the same tribe. Sometimes he created humans; often he is trying to deceive them. Sometimes he is merely trying to trick humans out of food. His cunning may go against men in one story and in another be used for the benefit of the people. And, despite that cunning, Coyote is often foolish, many times fatally so.

We’ve often seen Coyote stories rendered as versions of “Just So Stories,” little fables to explain why something is the way it is. Some Coyote stories do tell those things, but many of them don’t. To what we usually call a “Western mindset” (although “European/American” might be more truthful), a lot of the Coyote stories are, at best, oblique. Many are of a “learning by bad example” nature (Coyote is made to look foolish or is killed). Others are difficult to abstract any moral import from at all, such as the tale of Coyote tricking four bear-women into eating their own children (and then fooling them into being trapped for his own dinner at story’s end).

There is a whole to the Coyote stories, but not the coherent, seamless whole non-Native audiences may want; it is rather a mosaic of varied lifestyles and beliefs. Some would say Coyote is neither good nor evil, but it’s just as true to say that he is both, his actions going beyond both the best and the worst of those who learn his adventures. Coyote simply is. Zen may not have come to America before Europeans, but koans were here already.

While kitsune stories do not have the diversity that a continent the size of North America afforded to the Coyote stories, there are still some 1500 years of known fox tales in Japan, and they are not necessarily consistent. Since around 800 A.D., foxes have been connected to the Inari Shrine, particularly the white foxes who are messengers of the god and shrine guardians; yet, this is just one strand of kitsune lore, and indeed in most stories Inari does not figure into things at all. The foxes are mischievous, sometimes self-absorbed, sometimes helpful, and in some cases actively evil.

The chief non-cultural distinction between Coyote stories and kitsune stories is that in the former case, the stories are about the same being, reincarnated when necessary. Kitsune stories are about different foxes each story. Beyond that, there are obvious similarities. Both foxes and Coyote take the form of humans to trick them out of food or out of favors (sometimes sexual). Both show great power at times, and at other times get killed doing very foolish things. They are magical, but only when it fits the story, and the idea of what fits is seemingly subject to the whim of the storyteller.

The antecedents of kitsune stories seem to have entered Japan along with Buddhism, and Zen teachings suggest an appropriate cautionary note when we play anthropologist. When we look for patterns, we will find the patterns we ourselves impose. We certainly find recurring imagery and conceits throughout the stories, but nothing in the stories implicitly leads us to a Kitsune Grand Unification Theory. Coyote “fits” into Native American myth as the joker, the clown, the wild card—part of the cosmos, yet refusing to be pegged into one role. In the many kitsune tales, the fox fits into the same role in the Orient.

Kitsune folklore

Writing in Japan Quarterly, Janet Goff introduces kitsune this way:

The earliest Japanese written records simply mention white and black foxes as portents of good or evil, a concept imported from China. Down through the centuries, however, the Japanese have also avidly read Chinese tales of the supernatural, and produced similar stories, embodying the belief in the ability of foxes to transform themselves at will into any shape of their choosing, from scholars, students and bodhisattvas to beautiful women who seduce men.

Foxes are described as being “associated in literature in general with such a thing as an apparition or a wraith” during the 10th and 11th centuries; yet, the Inari Shrine was erected in 711 A.D., and the legends of the white foxes, Inari’s temple guardians and messengers, are from the 9th century. We see the two separate threads of good and evil: fox as benefactor and guardian, and fox as beguiler and trickster.

Most kitsune in stories are female—women in Japanese culture and many other patriarchies are also often seen with the bane/benefactor duality, the lady to be venerated and protected from manipulation set against the dangerous, manipulative femme fatale. (In such stories a manipulative nature may be a positive trait in men, but never in women.) Foxes and femme fatales have been connected in Japan for over a thousand years, as Goff writes:

The link between fox and femme fatale is clearly spelled out in The Old Grave, a work by the T’ang poet Po Chu-i, or Bai Juyi, that was alluded to by countless Japanese writers. The poem is about a fox in an old grave changing into a beautiful woman with fine makeup and a lovely hairdo, its tail flowing like a long red skirt. The end of the poem declares that a fox disguised as a woman does little harm, whereas a woman who acts like a “vulpine enchantress” can lead to ruin.

Many of the earliest stories of kitsune that survive today come to us through the Konjaku Monogatari, a 31-volume collection of narratives written in the 11th century. By this time, Buddhism had entered Japan and was becoming quite popular. Takakuni, the author of the Konjaku Monogatari, was a Buddhist, and the principles of that belief system, of karma and samsara (transmigration), are reflected in his tales. Like many Coyote stories, the narratives about the kitsune in this collection have negative lessons—that is, they are not figures to emulate. Kiyoshi Nozaki writes:

Kitsune, as you will read in such a book as the Konjaku Monogatari, is an animal wanton by nature. It is supposed to satisfy its desire by having relations with men through the art of bewitchery. Apart from the question of the possibility of this, you will notice, in the fox tradition, that kitsune is making use of its superior brains in various ways in bewitching men. This is the time-honored tradition of Japan in regard to the bewitchery of kitsune.

Stories rarely explain why kitsune wish to charm humans and entrap them in illusions—according to the fox-marriage legend, “the fox in the guise of a pretty woman will lead men into temptation to satisfy its desire,” but there is no explanation as to why a fox would desire men. Perhaps the Zen answer is the best answer: they just do.

Changing form

In some tales the foxes must perform a ritual to assume other shapes. To appear human, they put a skull on their head and pray until the change is affected. In most tales if the fox is in another shape, we meet it as a human (or perhaps a tree or a stag), so we do not see any ritual necessary for shifting. The shift back to a fox is always instant. In some tales the fox has been given away by the glimpse of a fox tail from under a kimono.

Foxes walking as men and women are invariably described as attractive, and having a distinctive look to the face which is considered subtly alluring. This look is considered attractive in (real) human women as well, and such women are given the name kitsune-gao-bijin, “fox-faced beauties.”

Bewitchery and illusion

In this aspect kitsune tales have a passing resemblance to some Celtic folklore of the faerie lands, where humans follow a Sidhe into a dream life of domestic bliss with a nice home, wife and children.

Usually, the tales have a man who becomes lost, and follows a woman—often a princess—to her home and stays there for what seems to him years, settling into a new life. Meanwhile, his family or friends look for him until a priest finds the fox den he’s really been taken to and the illusion is dispelled; the poor victim wakes up to find himself in a den under floorboards, or in a cave! Fortunately, for each year the victim imagines he has spent, only a day has passed in reality.

Some of these tales are more gentle. Janet Goff relates the origin of the fox-wife genre, which, like the Konjaku Monogatari, comes through Buddhism rather than Shinto:

The genre of fox-wife tales in Japan dates back to a story in an early ninth-century collection of Buddhist tales called Nihon Rydiki about a man searching for a wife. While crossing a field, he comes upon a pretty woman who agrees to marry him. Around the time that she bears the man a son, their dog gives birth to a puppy which sees through her disguise. Eventually she becomes so frightened that she turns into a fox and runs away.

While the “bewitchery” is usually illusion and perhaps a charm that causes victims to set aside common sense, in some stories foxes directly control men and animals. Sometimes this is through movement (particularly slow wagging of their tail). In a handful of stories, foxes in their natural form have imitated human voice. In most of these stories the fox seems to be exerting its power for its own amusement rather than for dark ends.

Possession

By all accounts, it seems that “fox-possession” was considered a disease by the 11th century, a kind of madness presumed to be caused by kitsune. From Nozaki:

A scholar of ancient times says in his book concerning this case of Kitsune-tsuki as follows: “There are various kinds of Kitsune with their power of witchery—high-class Kitsune and low-class Kitsune. When possessed by a high-class Kitsune, it is difficult to notice any difference in the way of bewitchery. According to a certain kannagi (maiden of the shrine who divines things, besides having other duties), there are 13 kinds of foxes with their different methods of witchery, such as celestial foxes, earthly foxes, black foxes, white foxes and so forth. Such foxes are very strange and fantastic.”

There are tales of fox-possession recorded in the Konjaku Monogatari, but there seem to be relatively few tales concerning possession rather than shape-shifting.

The superstition of fox-possession continued in civilized Japan until the turn of the 20th century, and may still continue in rural areas today; dementias and hallucinations were often ascribed to fox possession, just as they were ascribed to demonic possession in Europe.

Fox-fire

The creation of lights, similar to tales of will-o’-wisps, is called “the trade-mark of kitsune” by Nozaki. The most common manifestations of these in stories are hosts of small lights, like fireflies, or larger fireballs.

In the Issho-wa, published in 1811, a story is told of foxes observed chasing one another in the yard of an Inari shrine, breathing fire from their mouths. Earlier traditions tell of kitsune stroking their tails to produce flame.

In several other stories, kitsune possess and play with white stones, perhaps the size of an egg, that give off light in the darkness. In yet other stories, instead of white stones, the kitsune use horse or cow bones as torches.

Nozaki connects the genre of “fox-wedding” stories to a form of fox-fire, although they would seem to also employ other illusion and bewitching. In these tales, people observe—or are made part of—elaborate wedding processionals in the darkness, which at morning light are revealed to be vulpine pranks. The wedding processionals usually involve torches or lanterns created with kitsune-bi.

Exhausting victims

Victims of kitsune bewitchment often find themselves tired, exhausted, or ill for days or weeks after their rescue. It’s commonly held that someone who has relations with a kitsune will often be exhausted to the point of death—if they don’t die with the kitsune, they’ll die after being rescued or released. At least one folktale refers to kitsune “sucking the energy” out of victims that way. Hence the suggestion kitsune are vampiric—true in a certain sense. The fox-wife stories lack this aspect.

As Nozaki writes, “kitsune is said to be sexy—very much so, an animal of lewdness, a fact proved by many records and stories. Naturally it would find a good companion in a lewd man.” Of course, such a “lewd man” would at best be made a fool of by being tricked, and at worst might be killed, due to this character flaw; this is consistent with the common “learn by bad example” trickster story theme.

There are stories of male kitsune seducing maidens. One such folktale has it that “when a woman has relations with a fox, she will invariably suffer from a terrible physical pain.” The author comments that the same happens to men who “have connection with” she-foxes. Like the exhaustion, this doesn’t show up in the fox-wife stories of innocents ensnared, but seems reserved for those with a too-lewd nature.

Kitsune ethics

Foxes have a special connection to Inari, the rice god, and as previously mentioned, some of them are messengers and shrine guardians for the deity. Most foxes are not in such a favored position, although the connection to rice always seems to be there: the favorite food of foxes is said to be azuki-meshi, rice boiled with red beans. The foxes who do not serve Inari are called nogitsune, “wild foxes.” (Those who do are sometimes called myobu kitsune, after a court rank.)

Even so, not even Inari kitsune are above trickery, and nogitsune seem to be concerned with mortals only when one catches their eye or, perhaps, when they’re just looking for a quick entertainment. I’m not sure that the “energy vampirism” isn’t more of an unintentional side effect than a conscious feeding—but it’s unlikely most nogitsune would care about the fatal effects fulfilling their whims have.

In 18th and 19th century stories, kitsune seem to have acquired a conscience that’s not present in the early works—even the Inari foxes use their power on humans, just not maliciously. Nozaki recites several stories of kitsune refusing to accept charity which isn’t given freely, and kitsune suffering (to their deaths) from guilty consciences. The different “style” of kitsune may reflect changing attitudes in Japanese society as it moved toward the Meiji era, the source of the rigid nationalism that ultimately led toward World War II.

While in most kitsune stories the foxes are more pranksters than malicious, there is one true villainess, Tamamo-no-Mae. She is a villain of epic proportion—cruel for the sake of cruelty and taking pleasure in causing the deaths of thousands. This tale seems to come from the 14th or 15th century, and has enjoyed immense popularity, made into plays and noh dramas which are still being performed today.

Interestingly, Tamamo-no-Mae in her story follows the same path Buddhism does: from India, to China and then to Japan. After her true nature is revealed in India, she flees her position as consort to the ruler and heads to China, where she enters the harem of King Zhou and eventually becomes queen. Her actions eventually lead to the downfall of that kingdom, and she resurfaces in Japan, entering the imperial palace as a Court lady. When she is finally revealed there by a court astrologer, she flees those trying to kill her and turns herself into a poisonous stone, killing anything that approaches (even birds flying above it). Eventually, this stone is shattered by a priest, finally killing the kitsune.

The story of Tamamo-no-Mae probably grew out of the Kobi-ki, a brief account of kitsune written by the scholar Oe no Masafusa; his account ends with a mention of “Da-ji,” the consort of King Zhou who turned into a nine-tailed fox. Later histories accused Da-ji of having tempted the king into committing crimes that led to his dynasty’s downfall, although Masufusa did not make that claim. (I’ll return to the nine tails later on.)

Unanswered questions

As I want to stay as close to those stories as possible, my conjectures are going to be conservative, remaining in the context of Japanese literature, folklore and religion before the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Obviously there is a lot of material I don’t have access to, and some might change these answers. Also, they might change if I placed these in the context of modern reinterpretations, such as Japanese mythology as shown in anime (a segment of Japanese pop culture I am almost completely unfamiliar with), or as described in roleplaying game supplements, but doing so would violate my original intent.

The primary religious systems of China are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism; the primary systems of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Confucianism and Taoism have had some influences on Shinto, but there were (and continue to be) few adherents to those religions in Japan. When I am unsure about “cross-pollination” between Chinese and Japanese traditions I have erred on the conservative side, staying with Buddhist or Shinto beliefs.

Is there a distinction between foxes and kitsune?

Not in Japanese lore. “Kitsune” means fox, and all foxes are kitsune.

Are kitsune kami (spirits or gods)?

No two English translations of “kami” seem to precisely agree. They’re often understood as nature gods or nature spirits, yet I have seen references which suggest they are closer to souls—that is, everyone has a kami. Neither of these ultimately seem correct: Shinto does not separate spirit and matter in the way many other religions do.

The following comes from the Jinja Online Network:

If it is necessary to define [the concept of kami], it might be best to refer to the opinion of Motoori Norinaga, a scholar in the late 18th century, now widely accepted. He wrote, “Whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence and virtue, and inspired a feeling of awe was called Kami.” Here “the quality of excellence” means an enormous power which gives great influence on many things. Both natural elements (or phenomenon) and man are given a possibility to become Kami, because both the land and the people of Japan were given birth by Kami. So, they are all children of Kami.

Nevertheless, all of them are not Kami by themselves. Only things that have a great influence on human life could be Kami. For instance, relating to natural phenomenon, Kami of Rain, Kami of Wind, Kami of Mountains, Kami of Seas, Kami of Rivers, and Kami of Thunders are worshipped. Thus, objects of worship are limited to those which are closely associated and have great influences on human life.

Shinto is not a “nature religion,” per se—nature is not considered divine, and while there is a difference between kami and men, there is not a discontinuation. It might best be said that worship of kami is worship of the spirituality of a particular aspect of the world, not worship of that particular aspect itself.

So, a careful conjecture: the Inari kitsune are worshipped (although Nozaki is careful to point out that they are messengers of Inari, not incarnations of Inari), so they are kami. Wild kitsune (nogitsune) would have no greater or lesser chance of becoming kami as any other being or force. Animal spirits are mono, not kami, and this is likely where nogitsune lie, unless the nogitsune acted in such an exceptional way that a shrine was constructed to it.

Are there different types of kitsune?

There is the division we’ve already seen between myobu kitsune and nogitsune. The only reference to other divisions I’ve seen is the passage cited above in the discussion of fox possession: a 10th-century scholar quotes a shrine maiden as saying “there are 13 kinds of foxes with their different methods of witchery, such as celestial foxes, earthly foxes, black foxes, white foxes and so forth. ” Foxtrot refers to “thirteen clans” of kitsune, and hypothesizes a connection either to thirteen provinces of Japan or to thirteen elements. He concludes that the elements are more likely; I presume he drew at least in part on this passage for that theory.

However, there is no use of the word clan in the text. The distinction between the foxes is in the “methods of witchery” used to possess or beguile humans. Are these magical types connected with elements? Perhaps. Neither “black” nor “white” are elements on either the canonical five elements of Buddhism or Foxtrot’s list of thirteen. (I have been unable to ascertain the source for his list.) Black is the color of void, one of the Buddhist elements, and earth is another element; but it seems unlikely that if the scholar meant to associate magics with elements, he would name some elements directly but imply others by color.

I can’t give an authoritative “no” to the idea of kitsune as elemental spirits. But no studies I found definitively supported this reading, and no folk tale related in them involved such an idea at all. While it fits harmoniously with the kitsune-as-kami interpretation, my own interpretation would be that kitsune are not river spirits, forest spirits, and so on; they are fox spirits. There are different kinds of foxes, just as there are different kinds of humans.

Are most (or all) kitsune female?

There’s no reason to suppose this. As described earlier, most kitsune who are the focus of stories have been female; this is most easily explained as a function of the stories rising from a fiercely patriarchal society. The ratio of female kitsune to male kitsune as folktale characters tells us about the culture of the storytellers, not about the ratio of female to male foxes in Japan.

Do kitsune have court rank?

Only the Inari foxes are worshipped, and Nozaki writes, “In former years, the Inari shrine was supposed to have the senior grade of the first Court rank. The fox gods, however, had no rank though they were enjoying general popularity.”

The Inari foxes are called myobu, which is also a court rank held by ladies. This name, however, comes not from a rank conferred on foxes but from a legend Nozaki also recounts:

In the reign of the Emperor Ichijyo (980-1011), there lived a charming Court lady with a rank of myobu (a Court rank conferred on ladies) whose name was Shin-no-Myobu. She was a devotee of Inari God. She went to the shrine at Fushimi, Kyoto, to confine herself there for prayer for a period of seven days. After she had completed her term of worship, it is said, she won the heart of the Mikado and later became his consort. She attributed her good luck to the white foxes guarding the shrine and the name of myobu was given to them.

In a story by Uyeda Akinari, an 18th century author, there is a “fox-Court lady” and her “fox-cub girl.” However, she’s referred to as looking like a Court lady rather than being one. There’s no obvious reason why a kitsune in human form could not have an honorary rank bestowed on it, of course.

What do the multiple tails really mean?

The story of Tamamo-no-Mae, the evil nine-tailed fox, was recounted earlier. Multiple tails on animals in Japanese folklore signifies the magic of gods or spirits, and thus Tamamo’s nine tails almost certainly do signify her fearsome power. I’ve seen some modern stories and anime that features multiple-tailed kitsune, and occasionally other animals, such as the two-tailed wolf goddess in Princess Mononoke.

However, nothing I found supports the “counting tail” concept, the notion that tails grow to indicate either rank or age. I’m told this notion may have stemmed from the way kitsune were presented in a popular book series by fantasy author Mercedes Lackey, and may have further been popularized by pen-and-paper roleplaying games taking Lackey’s descriptions as canonical. While I’m sure she did a fine job in reworking kitsune myths to her own ends, the significance ascribed to tail counts simply isn’t found in the actual folk tales.

What is kitsune’s essential nature?

Kitsune’s nature lies in the stories, but nailing it down is like nailing down apple jelly. Some things are related in stories and poetry because academic prose fails to capture them.

As I started this in storytelling and roleplaying, I’ll close with a couple observations. This piece may give you an idea of what kitsune can do, and perhaps what they can’t; it may give you an idea of what they are as well as an idea of what they aren’t. But they are individuals; there could be a great deal of variance between them.

Every so often I’ve seen my story races be used in ways which suggest the reader either failed to understand the race’s nature or is deliberately ignoring it, so I may be a little sensitive on this point. If you’re really interested in something that isn’t a kitsune, don’t make a kitsune be one. If you like kitsune, respect them.

Now that I’ve gotten to know the “real” kitsune, they’re yet more interesting—at turns enigmatic, noble, coarse, or even frightening. I not only respect them, I like them.

Or, perhaps, I should say I’m enchanted by them. Hmm.

* * *

Bibliography

These are the sources I used, although I did not do academic-style end notes. While Lopez’s book on Coyote is still in print, Nozaki’s book on kitsune is not; I found a copy through ABEbooks.com, a network of independent booksellers.

Goff, Janet. “Foxes in Japanese culture: beautiful or beastly?” Japan Quarterly, Vol. 44 No. 2, April-June 1997.

Lopez, Barry. Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with his Daughter: Coyote builds North America. Avon Books, New York. 1977 (reprinted 1990).

Nozaki, Kiyoshi. Kitsune: Japan’s fox of mystery, romance and humor. Hokuseido Press, Japan. 1961.

Radcliff, Benjamin and Amy. Understanding Zen. Charles E. Tuttle, Boston. 1993.