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A Guide to Japanese Monsters: The Kitsune

A Guide to Japanese Monsters: The Kitsune

If you’re here, you’ve likely been combing the internet for some good intel on kitsune, a beloved and ancient shape-shifting fox with supernatural powers. Or perhaps you know about kitsune. You love kitsune! You’re just hungry for more information on…what should we call them? Japanese monsters…or Japanese mythical creatures…or would “Japanese mythological creatures” do the trick? As you can see from the title of our post, Bokksu is running a blog series on the topic of “Japanese monsters.” But what exactly qualifies something as monstrous?

Why We Call Them “Japanese Monsters”

Please release all connotations of deformities, frightfulness, or even corporeality. That’s right: we’re calling ghosts and other ethereal spirits “Japanese monsters,” too! It’s really difficult to translate or systematize the many different categories of Japanese mythological creatures; there are simply too many, and the rules for what makes someone a demon or a ghost are complicated and irregular. To avoid getting lost in the tall grass (perhaps not the ideal place to talk about ghouls), we’ll be using the terms “Japanese mythical creatures,” “Japanese mythic creatures,” and “Japanese monsters” interchangeably for all of our supernatural friends. Some are trolls, other ghosts, and some are vengeful household goods. Some, like the first type of kitsune, are linked to religious figures or stories. And some, like the other type of kitsune, are simply characters who appear in folklore. (Don’t worry, we’ll review them before the test!) Whenever you see references to Japanese mythical creatures or Japanese monsters, we’re talking about beings who 1.) possess supernatural powers and 2.) appear in some very interesting tales. Like today’s hero, kitsune!

Kitsune: A Tale of Two Foxes

Kitsune pop up often in Japanese stories, and anyone who’s spent some time in Japan has likely spotted kitsune (which literally means “fox”) at a temple or shrine. As with so many elements of Japanese religion and culture, the kitsune is a relative of fox spirits from Korea, China, and India. In folktales, kitsune are more akin to these earlier supernatural foxes: though kitsune can be faithful or lucky, the “Japanese monster” in folktales is more often sinister and a wily trickster. Kitsune will carry out deceptions by pretending to be humans themselves, sometimes even marrying and giving birth to humans! There is a traditional kitsune story similar to the Scottish selkie (seal woman) folktale, in which a kitsune marries a man and gives birth to human children, only to eventually shapeshift back into a fox and disappear, often to escape a fearful enemy. In other tales, kitsune will possess humans, create fire or strange lights in the sky, transform into yet other objects, and even distort one’s entire sense of reality.

Like the kitsune of folklore, the kitsune of the temple is extremely wise and powerful. Holy kitsune, however, is a benevolent, white-coated messenger to Inari, Shinto god of rice. This version of kitsune gains wisdom and tails as it ages. (Some readers may recall a Pokemon called Ninetails, the maximum number a kitsune is said to gain over time.) Partly because of Inari’s power and scope, kitsune are very popular Japanese mythical creatures by association. 

Inari’s Kitsune: Japanese Mythical Creatures and Messengers

Calling tInari “Shinto god of rice,” is an oversimplification. Inari often combines with or is a relative of other Shinto gods of food, at least one of whom can transform into a fox. Some believe Inari to be a Shinto version of the bodhisattva called Dakiniten, who rides a fox. Sometimes Inari appears as male, often as female, and sometimes even as a fox! But why is Inari—and thus, kitsune—so commonly found?

The short story: when money replaced rice as a measure of wealth and success, Inari expanded their holy territory to include all kinds of business and industry. Inari is the god one prays to for tea, sake, fertility, the protection of fishermen (along shorelines), fire prevention (in big city Edo, aka Tokyo) and for the healing of maladies. They are even the patron deity or actors, sex workers, and others living in the Pleasure Quarters: a place one can easily find a shrine to Inari. One could say that Inari is a one-stop holy shop, someone you’d like in or around your corner. Each Inari shrine is protected by at least two kitsune. A lot of Inari shrines means a lot of kitsune figures along your religious path.

Food of the Japanese Mythic Creatures

If kitsune are the messengers for Inari, it stands to reason that if you want to reach Inari, you’d go to a kitsune first. Along with your prayer, the perfect token of appreciation is kitsune’s favorite food: aburaage, or deep-fried tofu! If you’ve come across kitsune udon on a menu, that’s because it contains aburaage, food of the fox!

Nissin Donbei: Kitsune Udon (1 Cup)

At Bokksu, you can also now aburaage in this instant miso soup

Hikari Instant Miso Soup: Fried Tofu (8 servings)

or alone, simmered, seasoned, and made into pouches.

J-Basket Inari no Moto Seasoned Fried Bean Curd

Inarizushi, sushi rice wrapped in a pouch of aburaage, is a common kitsune/Inari shrine offering, and a rare vegetarian sushi option for the hungry. We highly recommend getting two: one for your local kitsune, and one for you.

By Emi Noguchi

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