Kitsune are japanese fox spirits out of ancient lore (although there is some speculation that they were integrated from chinese and korean mythologies and then rewritten much more deeply into japanese legend.) They are for the most part wholly foxlike in appearance, always appearing as the small redbrown canoids and never as anthropomorphic or bipedal foxes. There is really no gender differentiation although the kitsune species as a whole is more feminine than male. Most fox-bodied kitsune have only the one tail, but sometimes they are shown with more--this is a mark of honor and prestige and wisdom. It's generally accepted they either gain them in old age or through noble and wise acts. A nine-tailed kitsune is of the highest rank.

What exactly they are is up for debate. Some theories say they're highly sentient and intelligent true foxes with magical and spiritual gifts. Some say they're a specific race of otherworld spirits (or kami, nature spirits, in japanese mythology). There are also theories that they are human souls choosing to take a fox form and continue to walk the earth rather than passing elsewhere. In almost all of these cases, it is believed they can assume either a wholly spirit form or a physical fox body as the fancy strikes them. There are also legends that they will posess a human while in their spirit form. They are, however, all "mortal" in a form, and rarely live beyond 900 years, after which they pass beyond, although to exactly what no one is sure.

One subset of the Kitsune are called the "myobu" and are good-luck and guardian spirits, instead of the normal trickster nature spirits which most kistune are called. These kitsune have sworn fealty to the godde Inari--god of rice, grain, and fields, and his shrines. The bond was forged, when, in legend, a pair sought shelter in her temple and in exchange for his protection, and swore vows to him in return. These kitsune are often prayed to when non-Inari kitsune ("nogitsune") cause trouble among the people. Kitsune also are classified by region, "holy" and "wild", the natural elemental each one draws from, and by interally regulated clan systems. Like the foxes they resemble, they value family and honor above most all else.

Kitsune as a race rarely interact with humans, as both kami and forest creatures keep mostly to themselves. People would pray to them and in return they would bestow blessing and order, but this was the extent of most interaction. However, being fox spirits, they are also tricksters and are known to randomly annoy and trick people just on a whim. None of this, however, is considered "meddling" on a grand scale, and affects the balance of things very little. However, very rarely, a kitsune would be called upon very strongly to influence something important, and they would actively manifest and appear to humankind. However, this was a huge drain on the kitsune spirit, and catastrophe such as famine would often sweep the land, as the kitsune needed to leech that energy to sustain its manifestation.

There are some legends that kitsune can shapeshift into beautiful women to secude unwary travelers. It is unclear if both male and female kitsune can shift into women, but there are no instances recorded of a kitsune taking a human male form. However, kitsune can also shapeshift into nearly anything of nature, rocks, trees, rivers, just about anything. This shapeshifting is one important part of kitsune magic, weaving in with their affinity for illusion--they can warp and shape reality into being what they want, creating as they choose. Along with shapeshifting they are rumored to have mind control abilities, which is why they are so excellent at seducing their targets. They can also create "fox-fire" as they choose. It's exactly what it sounds like, small orbs of fire. However, those of true and practicing faith--any faith--can see through and disarm a kitsune's magic, shattering the illusion.

Beyond the Vulpine’s Eyes

All throughout eastern Asia (specifically: India, China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan), the kitsuné is a very respected, sacred and even feared animal. Twelve years of dedicated research has gone into this documentation, but by no means should be considered complete as this is a study that will continue for many years to come nor should it be considered an authority on the subject. For the purpose of this documentation, aspects of the role the fox plays in Japanese society will be the focus.

1. Introduction: The Etymology

The word kitsuné (pronounced: keet-soon-eh) means fox in Japan. The word is composed of two sounds. Kitsu, which is the sound for a fox’s bark (LaHaise 1997:4), this was also the word for fox (now obsolete) in the older Japanese language. The second part of the word is ne, which signifies affection or literally noise. The characters for fox were sometimes written as kitsu-né, which means come and sleep or ki-tsuné, which means come always (Wikipedia 2006).

2. Society and Traditions

Kitsuné are sometimes considered to be kami, which are spirits. These kami are very in-tune with nature which grants them several abilities such as control over certain elementals according to folklore. Some people used to (and some still do) worship these kami by bringing them offerings such as tofu or prayers in hopes of their protection in return.

Kitsuné also have a deep connection to a Shinto deity known as Inari, or the Buddhist name Dakiniten. Inari is a deity of rice and wealth. Inari is sometimes seen as either a young woman, an aged man with a long, white beard or a fox. Inari’s fox form seems to upset priests at Inari shrines in Japan but not as much as the concept of her being a snake or a dragon (Smyers 1999:8).

In Japan, foxes are admired often for their ability to live between borders, quite literally. Also meaning that the kitsuné are between the social barriers, frequently doing things, which are deemed socially unacceptable. Sometimes, when someone is drunk or acting “out of place”, they are often accused of being possessed by a fox (called Kitsuné-tsuki). (Smyers 1999:187-199)

3. Sociology of the Vulpine

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a part of the canidae family. The fox is a solitary and territorial animal by nature; that is unless it is mating season. There are characteristics of both the dog and the cat in a fox. Someone would think foxes are the result of a cat and a dog but this is not so. Foxes are also very curious and mischievous animals by nature. It is interesting to note that a part of the fox’s courtship ritual involves the dog-fox (male) bowing in front of “his” vixen (female fox). (Wolf Park 2005:1-9)

According to Japanese tales (called monogatari), kitsuné are said to have multiple tails. The meanings behind these tails may vary, such as representing the kitsuné’s age, power or wisdom. Foxes, by nature, do not have a hierarchal system like wolves do. The tails are not a symbol of dominance over other kitsuné but a sign of which he or she is ranking and deserves respect as elders looked up to in Japanese culture.

There is debate of what sort of kitsuné there are. The three most common are: The first is the myobu or Celestial kitsuné. They are said to serve Inari and are seen anywhere there is an Inari shrine as guardians. The myobu are benevolent in nature and most are byakko (or white fox). The second are the nogitsuné (literally wild fox) who do not serve Inari and are mischievous and neutral in nature. The third are the reiko, who do not serve Inari either and are also said to be affiliated to the elemental Void (darkness). Although reiko are more malevolent in nature, they are not necessarily considered evil.

4. Tricksters of Japan

Kitsuné folklore indicates these mysterious creatures as shape shifters. Their transformations may include virtually anything, such as: A male Buddhist priest, a young maiden who seduces or trick men (mainly Samurai and drunken men), trees and stones (LaHaise 1997:6). A kitsuné’s “shifting” is a complex illusion, usually done by completing a ritual. For example, here is an excerpt from the book The Fox Woman (2000:150):

I had no hands, no clever fingers to lift and balance the skull. I pushed my nose under, as if pushing aside a heavy bough. … ‘Bow to the seven stars of the Great Bear.’ Afraid it (the human skull) might slip, I tipped my head carefully, but it clung as if held there by sap, a heavy rotting weight on my head, the upper jaw an arc across my brow. I felt each tooth like a heavy bead. … I tilted my face up to the moon, the skull clinging like a cap. I barked once, then again: … The moonlight hissed like mist falling around me. … Like a reflection on water, one of Inari’s moon-foxes overlaid itself and spoke: ‘Choose.’

Following that ritual, in due time do the effects of transformation come into play. Other transformations mentioned in other monogatari tales have almost instant success, such as the kitsuné simply using dead leaves as currency to trick people into selling them an item.

The kitsuné performing an illusion may have a small comma-shaped or marble-shaped jewel, which is said to be (but not necessarily) white and may have a distinct glow to it. This jewel, called the hoshi-no-tama, or star ball. The purpose behind the hoshi-no-tama is still rather unclear but according to folklore, it is said, the jewel contains a portion of the kitsuné’s life force or power and so will guard it very closely.

5. Mysteries of the Kitsuné

When a kitsuné seduces a man and kisses him, she pushes the jewel into his mouth and brings it back into hers. After repeating this for some time, the man becomes pale because she is feeding off his life force. Legend has it that if one swallows the jewel and looks to the sky; one will be given the wisdom of heaven and if one looks down at the ground one will be bestowed with the wisdom of earth.

Although there are both male and female kitsuné, the male will most likely also take the role of a female in order to seduce and sleep with a man. The reason for doing so is that kitsuné as a whole are a yin (feminine) based race, they lack the yang (masculine) energies, which are said to be contained within the human male’s semen. The yang energy is essential in order to balance their yin energy and achieve spiritual advancement and immortality through their sexual desire (De Visser 1908:10).

It is said; the first to achieve orgasm in sexual intercourse with a kitsuné loses a portion of their life force (whether it is the kitsuné or its “victim”). If the other partner is able to refrain from achieving orgasm, they will consume the other’s life force (in this case the kitsuné).

There is a play in which the life of the infamous Lady Tamamo no Mae is carried out. She is the kitsuné who was responsible for the loss of thousands of lives in several countries and the fall of many empires. The play suggests the following were her doing: The destruction of king Pan-Tsu from India, the fall of the Chou dynasty and Japan, where she enters the emperor’s court. Upon discovery by a shaman, she reverts to her original golden-furred, nine-tailed fox form and flees. She is said to have later transformed into a large stone near the moor of Nasumo where anything that comes near dies. Bones are said to be scattered in the area as well (LaHaise 1997:18).

"Many stories describe foxes imitating humans, but in an eighteenth-century text, when a man imitates a fox by jumping over a torii (the red arches found near Inari shrines which indicate a portal between the physical and spirit worlds), he falls into the hell of animals." (De Visser 1908:62)

Kitsuné sometimes use an ability to create a flame-like substance by rubbing their tails together. This “flame” is called a kitsuné-bi, or fox-fire. The kitsuné-bi is said to be often used as a lure to lead men into traps, lanterns or as a simple toy.

The kitsuné are known to be very vengeful beings. They will repay a person in exact to their actions. Such as the monogatari tale in which depicts a samurai who wounded a kitsuné, so as vengeance it crawled to the man’s house and set it on fire. However, the kitsuné will also repay a person for a good deed done to it, such as if a man saves the kitsuné’s life, is said to repay the person by offering protection even in the most dangerous situations from gratitude.

6. Final Note: Yet the Search Continues

In conclusion, the fox has indeed played an important role in Japanese society throughout hundreds of years. Dare it be mentioned that it is interesting to not there are no known records of kitsuné causing any trouble in modern times? The author of The Fox and the Jewel, Karen Smyers, wrote something similar to this thought in her book which is quite interesting:

"I never heard of any computer-related mischief of foxes, but surely they are working on it. … While working on the final revisions of this text, I deleted this sentence as somewhat gratuitous - and soon thereafter lost the entire chapter and the backups as well."

Perhaps that may be the only record or simply a fluke. Another idea which is amusing is that this author was accused of being a kitsuné while on her field research, due to her ability to cross social boundaries so easily. Alas, whether a conclusive search is ever to become a reality on this subject of the fox’s role in Japanese society, will forever remain a mystery as much as the kitsuné themselves.

Works Cited

De Visser, M. W. “The Fox and the Badger in Japanese Folklore.” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. 1908:1-159.

Issendai. Kitsune, Kumiho, Huli Jing, Fox - Fox spirits in Asia, and Asian fox spirits in the West. 02 Jan. 2006 <>.

Johnson, Kij. The Fox Woman. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2000.

LaHaise, Kit. Kitsune Lore. 1997 <>.

Nozaki, Kiyoshi. Kitsuné: Japan’s Fox of Mystery, Romance & Humor. Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1961.

Smyers, Karen A. The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.

Wikipedia. Kitsune. 22 Feb. 2006 <>.

Wolf Park. Management of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) in Captivity. Battle Ground: Eckhard H. Hess Institute of Ethology, 2005.

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