In Chinese folklore, there are shapeshifting fox spirits who haunt the mountains with their sleek nine-tailed body, called hulijing or jiuweihu. In Japan, we have the kitsune, also a known shapeshifter. Most people assume that kitsune is an import (like so many things in Japan) that transformed upon arrival. There is a whole complicated debate about this as foxes have been a part of Japanese folklore since around the 4th century at least, before Chinese culture began to influence Japan. And while it is interesting, that is not why we are here today.
The distinction I would like to focus on today is linguistic. Here are the kanji for the Chinese mythological creatures: 狐狸精 (hulijing) and 九尾狐 (jiuweihu). The first is translated as fox spirit. The second as nine-tailed fox. Now look at the kanji for kitsune: 狐. Just fox.
In Japan, all foxes are mystical. “The kitsune is a real animal that treads the borders between this world and that.” (Foster 2015: 184). There are quite a few of these animals roaming the woods and skies here: besides for the fox, there is the raccoon dog (neither raccoon or dog and called a tanuki- also a shapeshifter), the crow (the ancient form of the mountain goblin Tengu), the cat (which I have talked about before), the centipede (which I have also talked about before). Actually, it is pretty safe to say that most animals you encounter in Japan either are themselves magical or have some mystical ancestors somewhere, either as independent yokai or connected to Shintoism or Buddhism. Excepting the obvious, like purse dogs.
My fondness for foxes began in childhood after watching Disney’s Robin Hood. Besides for being Robin Hood (still my favorite antihero), I loved the way Robin and Marian’s canine teeth were always sticking out (which is funny because here in Japan, it is considered rather charming when a girl’s canines show, something that shows up in illustrated form quite often). Foxes remained a latent favorite animal until I moved here and started to learn about their importance in Japanese culture. I believe the exact moment that piqued my interest was when I was teaching at a high school in Nara and was taught how to make a fox with my hand (ring and middle finger touch the thumb, pinky and pointer fingers stick up). It was a simple trigger, I admit, but I have been slowly researching the creature ever since.
The fox is woven into everyday culture in so many fascinating ways. Like how in Japanese you say “moshi moshi” when answering the phone to make sure the person on the other end knows you are not a fox transformed into a human form for deceptive purposes (supposedly when they shift, foxes cannot speak in full sentences so repeating sounds are impossible for them).
Or how the word for sunshower is kitsune no yomeiri, fox’s wedding. “It was at mysterious, paradoxical times like this that foxes got married, or alternatively, it was the mysterious powers of foxes that caused such paradoxical meteorological phenomena.” (Foster 2015: 185). I first came across the term as it was visualized by the great Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. When I decided to start a new blog to serve as a platform for my many projects (writing, documenting my family, drawing, making, living in Japan), I felt like I chose Kitsune No Yomeiri at random. This past year has given me plenty of opportunity for introspection and I realize now just how appropriate such a name is for me.
I am a paradox that treads the borders. I am both American and Japanese and neither American nor Japanese. I am boring and captivating, pretty and ugly, tranquil and crazy, sunshine and rain. When I write here, I am writing as that contradiction. I am both and neither. I am a fox, here and there, everywhere and nowhere.
This is my favourite book so far about Japanese folklore.
Foster, Michael Dylan. (2015). The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. University of California Press.
For an incredibly thorough article about Kitsune No Yomeiri, please visit another fantastic resource for all things yokai: Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.