What is a Kitsune?
What’s magical, immortal, and incredibly adorable? The Kitsune. These legendary foxes have been delighting Japanese people for centuries, whether by celebrating a wedding with “foxfire” lanterns or making the village jerk run through the streets naked and give all his money away. But the Kitsune aren’t all fun and games—they can be incredibly wise, and incredibly dangerous, too!
Newborn Kitsunes could easily blend in with a litter of average foxes. They must gain their magical looks—along with their magical powers—over time. For example, every hundred years, a Kitsune grows a new tail. He can have up to nine tails total. In his later years, his red fur might begin to turn gold, then, finally white.
When the Kitsune reaches his one hundredth birthday, he can begin shapeshifting, a trick that makes describing him very difficult. These magical foxes love to take human forms. They tend to go for shapes that command maximum respect: an elegant young woman or a wise old priest. If they’re in a troublemaking mood, they can also pose as humans they’ve seen before: a prince who can command an army or an enemy who needs to be humiliated. Luckily, the fox’s disguise is rarely perfect. If you catch him off guard, you might catch a glimpse of his bottlebrush tail!
Some of the oldest and most powerful Kitsune can take on other shapes as well. They’ve been known to appear as impossibly tall trees and second moons in the sky. Some of them can even disappear!
But no matter what shape a Kitsune takes, there will always be one give-away. He must keep his hoshi no tama, a glowing ball or iridescent gem, with him at all times. The ball contains his soul, and without it, he will grow powerless and die. In human form, Kitsunes usually wear their hoshi no tamas as amulets, but in fox form, they carry the magical balls in their mouths or fasten them to their tails.
No two Kitsune are exactly alike, and all of them are complex characters! Their high intelligence and boundless creativity make them hard to predict. Still, they can be broadly split into two groups: the zenko and the yako.
The zenko are good foxes who serve Inari, the goddess of rice and prosperity. Zenko often appear as priests, to bring wisdom to humans. They might also bring messages to rulers or become guardians of specific households, bringing their families wealth and happiness. Finally, they settle disputes between humans and bad foxes, usually taking the human’s side!
The yako are bad foxes. While zenko foxes can be mischievous, yako foxes can be downright destructive. They ruin reputations, steal valuables, and even lure travelers into deadly traps. Most of the time, the yako target arrogant or lazy people, but they’ve been known to harass innocents as well!
Many Kitsune, both zenko and yako, seem to have a romantic streak as well. Disguised as beautiful young women, they frequently intermarry with humans. Most Kitsune prove to be affectionate and loyal wives, although the marriage usually ends with the Kitsune being chased away. A few Kitsune may seduce men, only to rob them or place them in humiliating positions after they’ve fallen asleep. When two Kitsune marry, they host elaborate wedding celebrations, which may include conjuring up magical “foxfire” lanterns or calling rain down from a clear blue sky.
Kitsune are incredibly magical creatures. Their powers are limited only by their imaginations, which, considering the Kitsune’s lively imagination, means that they are hardly limited at all!
They specialize in the art of illusion. Shapeshifting is just the first of many skills in this area. As well as transforming their bodies, these magical foxes can transform the world around them as well. They can make decadent mansions and dreamy gardens out of a graveyard. They can conjure up masses of silver and gold, which turns back into grass in the morning. And they can spend years in a human-shape, without ever being identified as a fox.
Kitsune also have psychic powers. They can take possession of human bodies, usually to humiliate a person who has wronged them by making him run through the town naked, give all his money away, or eat huge amounts of food until he grows fat. As a less drastic measure, a Kitsune might enter a human’s mind while he is sleeping to deliver a message through a dream.
The Kitsune also have miscellaneous other powers. Some can fly. Some can breathe fire. Some can control the weather and others can see the future.
Like many aspects of Japanese culture, the Kitsune were inspired by Chinese, who told tales of magical, nine-tailed foxes called huli jing.
Kitsune first debuted in Japanese literature in the eighth century, and their legend has never faded since. They can be found as statues around ancient shrines for Inari, on calligraphy scrolls by Japan’s finest artists, and of course, in thousands of folktales.
Japanese people believed in their magical foxes well into the eighteenth century. Special tofu recipes were invented as offerings for the foxes who lived around Inari’s temples. Families kept foxes as pets, believing the foxes would bring them wealth and success. Some families, who were believed to be descended from yako foxes, were ostracized by their communities. And many cases of mental illness were described as kitsunetsuki, or possession by foxes.
The charming Kitsune have not lost their hold on Japanese culture. In fact, their lore has spread around the world!
Since foxes are such adorable creatures, they are most popular in visual entertainment like comics, anime, and video games. They appear in Naruto, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Zelda and Mario.