Monster of the Week: Kitsune

Stone Kitsune

Stone Kitsune. Image from Japan Travel Guide

Kitsune are mischievious fox spirits. The term kitsune means “fox” in Japanese, but when used in English it refers to the mystical foxes of Japanese folklore. Kitsune are a type of yōkai, a creature with supernatural abilities. They are similar to the wild foxes found throughout the world, but for their magical powers.

Celestial foxes are sometimes referred to as Inari foxes because of their association with the Shino God Inari. Image: Fushimi Inari Fox by Hector Gutierrez

Celestial foxes are sometimes referred to as Inari foxes because of their association with the Shinto God Inari. Image: Fushimi Inari Fox by Hector Gutierrez

Kitsune can be either malevolent or benevolent in nature. Zenko or myobu are good kitsune and are associated with the Shinto deity Inari, who some believe to be a fox as well. They serve as messengers for the gods and help convey information between celestial and human worlds. These benevolent kitsune bring good luck, provide protection, and ward off evil spirits. They sometimes impart wisdom or guidance to pious humans.

Nogitsune by Takehara Shunsen from the Ehon Hyaku monogatari

Nogitsune by Takehara Shunsen

More common are kitsune with a malicious nature, known as yako or nogitsune. They play pranks or tricks on humans, and can be quite wicked. It is believed that some malevolent foxes feed off the life force of human beings. Though they have an evil nature, these kitsune keep their word, honor friendships, and repay debts. Sometimes the term kitsune is reserved for good foxes, while malevolent foxes are referred to as nogitsune (wild fox) and not kitsune. There are 13 different types of kitsune, and each is associated with an element: Heaven (or Celestial or Prime), Void (or Dark), Wind, Spirit, Fire, Earth, River, Ocean, Mountain, Forest, Thunder, Time, and Sound.

Abilities

New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Oji. Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Andō Hiroshige. No. 118 in the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857.

“Kitsunebi on New Year’s Night under the Enoki Tree near Ōji” Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Andō Hiroshige.

Kitsune are known to have many supernatural powers. They can generate fire or lightning from their tails or mouths. Kitsune are able to enter the dreams of others, create illusions indistinguishable from reality, and drive people mad. Other powers include flight, invisibility, and the ability to influence space and time. Being shape shifters, Kitsune are able to take unusual shapes such as those of a giant or monster, or transform into a moon in the sky. Kitsune also have the ability to take possession of humans, which is referred to as kitsunetsuki. While young women are the victims of possession, men are the targets of a kitsune’s mischief. The trickster kitsune may mislead, confuse with visions, humiliate, steal food, or exact vengeance upon their victims. Kitsune can create strange and magical lights in the sky, known as kitsune-bi (foxfire), which look like they are being carried by invisible marchers. These series of flickering red, orange, or blue lights in a long line are similar to a vision of Hawaiian Night Marchers, or the European will-o’-the-wisp.

Nine-tailed fox

Nine-tailed fox

The magical abilities of kitsune increase with age. The age, wisdom, and power of a kitsune is reflected in the number of tails it has. The most influential of kitsune can have nine tails. The growth of an additional tail indicates many years of experience and wisdom, as some kitsune will not grow another tail until it has lived for another 100 years. When a kitsune grows into a nine-tailed fox (kyūbi no kitsune) it turns white or gold and may become omniscient. The main tail of a kitsune is its source of power. To kill a kitsune, one must cut off all its tails in order to ensure the main tail is destroyed.

Shape Shifting and Marriage

Kuniyoshi Ichiyusai, ukiyo-e color print of Kuzunoha the fox woman casting a fox shadow. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Kuniyoshi Ichiyusai, ukiyo-e color print of Kuzunoha the fox woman casting a fox shadow. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Once Kitsune reach a certain age, usually 100, they develop the ability to take human form. The process of transforming requires placing reeds, a leaf, or a skull over its head. Though kitsune are known to take the form of elderly men and young girls, they are best known for taking the form of a beautiful woman. Kitsune have been known to marry humans and bear their children. The children of such marriages may inherit supernatural powers. Occasionally kitsune in human form are exposed when their magical disguise fails. If they are careless, drunk or surprised, a tail, patch of fur, or fangs may become visible, often to the alarm of their human companions.

Fox Wedding at Japanese Festival. Image from Japan Travel Guide

Fox Wedding at Japanese Festival. Image from Japan Travel Guide

When kitsune marry each other, it’s known as kitsune no yomeiri. It is said that kitsune marry when sunshowers occur. Fox Weddings are considered good omens. In Japan, a Fox Wedding is recreated at various festivals each year throughout Japan. Despite the good luck Fox Weddings bring, uninvited observers of the kitsune no yomeiri may face kitsune vengeance for intruding on this private event.

The intrusion into kitsune custom was portrayed in the Akira Kurosawa film Dreams. In one of the film’s stories, a young boy goes out to play as the sun shines through the falling rain. His mother warns him that on such days Fox Weddings occur and he must not view their celebrations. Despite his mother’s warning, the boy spies on the Fox Wedding and is discovered. When he returns home his mother tells him that he cannot come inside because he has angered the foxes, who now expect him to kill himself. She tells him to find the foxes to beg for their forgiveness, and the story ends with him starting his search for the kitsune.

Popular Culture

Kitsune Kira

Kitsune Kira

In Teen Wolf, one of the main characters of starting in Season 3 is a kitsune. Her name is Kira Yukimura and her mother is also a kitsune. Kira is a Thunder Kitsune, which allows her to absorb electricity into her body. It is not clear what kind of kitsune Kira’s mother Noshiko is, but she claims to be 900 years old while appearing the same as she did in 1943. Noshiko had nine knives that allowed her to control the demon warriors known as Oni. Her husband referred to the knives as Noshiko’s “tails.” Kiri denies having any tails, though she is able to create foxfire. When Noshiko was in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, she summoned a Nogitsune, a dark kitsune, as a form of vengeance. Though she had killed the dangerous Nogitsune in 1943, it was still able to take possession of the character Stiles in 2011 because part of the kitsune still resided in a fly that had flown from his mouth at death. Stiles was a pretty terrifying Nogitsune, was you can see in this clip.

Amy Pond's mom, also a kitsune, does not take a shine to Sam

Amy’s mom, also a kitsune, doesn’t take a shine to Sam

Kitsune are also part of the Supernatural mythology, appearing in “The Girl Next Door” (S07E03). As a boy, Sam Winchester befriended a girl named Amy Pond (not the Scottish Amy Pond) who turned out to be a kitsune. In Supernatural kitsune have a human appearance, but can shapeshift to become fox-like with yellow eyes and long claws. Kitsune have unusual strength and speed. They must feed on the pituitary gland or they will die. This aspect of the lore more closely resembles the Korean kumiho (nine-tailed fox), which eats human livers or hearts, than a Japanese kitsune. In Supernatural lore, kitsune can be killed when stabbed through the heart.

One of the main characters in the webcomic The Fox Sister is a nine-tailed fox. This fox is a Korean kumiho, rather than a Japanese kitsune. The webcomic is rooted the Korean fairy tale of the same name. Unlike the kitsune, which can be of a benevolent character, the flesh-eating kumiho are characterized as evil. Nonetheless, it’s an fantastic depiction of a nine-tailed fox.Fox Sisters panel If you want to learn more about the Korean Kumiho see our article on these devious creatures. You can also read about the Chinese huli jing, the predecessor to the Japanese kitsune.


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23 thoughts on “Monster of the Week: Kitsune

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