Troublesome Fox Spirits

Reference Pages Index -- Oniko Goes To Japan Main Page

A kitsune statue at a shrine
in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.
Strange though it may sound, one of the best known supernatural monsters in Japan are kitsune -- foxes. There are many legends from all over the country that tell of their secret lives and magical talents. Tales tell of their ability to cast illusions and change form, and of their mischevious -- and sometimes dangerous -- need to interfere with humans. Foxes are so well known in Japan that they often appear in children's books, TV shows, comics, and movies as stock characters.
Foxes have been said to use their powers of illusion to trick people in many ways. One story tells of a fox passing off tree leaves as money to purchase human goods; another fox with a meaner streak invited a person to sit down to a fine dinner and, after a couple of platefuls, the illusion finally faded to reveal what was actually being served up... horse dung (ugh!). Because of these older stories, foxes often appear in modern tales as generic tricksters; if you see one in a comic or cartoon, you know it's up to mischief!
But not all old fox stories are fun and games. One famous tale tells of two young boys who accidently chanced upon a wedding parade in the middle of a forest. Even though all the participants of the parade dressed and walked like humans, they were all clearly foxes in human dress. The boys were spotted, and so they ran... but only one emerged from the forest. The missing boy was never seen again.
Foxes are sometimes said to disguise themselves as beautiful young maidens -- inhumanly beautiful young maidens -- generally to cause trouble in families they marry into, but occasionally because a young hero has saved their lives and they genuinely want to stay with him. In either case, if their true identities are revealed they revert to fox form and run away forever. Because of these stories, foxes can also appear in modern stories as supernaturally beautiful maidens... and true human beauties are sometimes compared to foxes, both as a compliment to their appearance and as an implied insult that questions their honesty.
In addition to disguising themselves, many people in Japan believe that the spirits of foxes can possess a human in much the same way many people in America believe demons and ghosts can possess people. Once possessed, a person will use foul and rude language, throw and break things, and generally act terrible to themselves and others until the fox spirit is exorcized by an expert.
But not all foxes are bad. Foxes are also used as protective symbols; a sitting fox at a shrine represents this animal's status as a messenger of greater beings, likely waiting to take your prayers to the shrine's guardian spirit. Like other beings with supernatural power, they can be coaxed into helping people, and often will respond with great generosity to those that even inadvertantly help them.

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