Saturday, December 3, 2011

Word Of The Week: Kitsune

Yuzuruha from Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Kitsune (狐) is the Japanese word for fox, and also refers to a type of youkai (妖怪), or spirit. Foxes are a big part of Japanese mythology and many references are made in popular culture today. Most people are aware of the Pokemon Ninetails, Youko Kurama from Yu Yu Hakusho, Kyuubi no Youko the Nine-tailed demon fox from Naruto, or even Yuzuruha from the Wii game Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Gin Ichimaru from Bleach has what are called “Kitsune no me” (fox’s eyes), which show off his fox-like personality.

There are many different types of fox depending on area and legend, but there are typically two common types: the zenko(善狐), and the yako(野狐). The zenko are the kind and good messengers of the rice deity, Inari. Their white fur is an indication of their connection to Inari. These foxes are also protectors, and bring prosperity.

However, the other type of fox, the yako or nogitsune(野狐), are notorious tricksters and can be playful or even malevolent. Since foxes have their own sense of beliefs, what’s “good” to them isn’t necessarily good for you all the time. They could bring you wealth by stealing from your neighbors.

Foxes have multiple tails depending on age and power. It is said that fox gains a tail around every one-hundred years. The greatest number of tails a fox can have is nine. Upon gaining the ninth tail, they turn white, silver, or gold.

It’s not completely clear when, but after a certain number of years, foxes gain several different powers, such as possession, shape-shifting, or the ability to cast illusions. Most often, they take the form of young, inhumanly beautiful women, or old men.

Ghosts and spirits were a real problem in Japan long ago, and many people were fearful about encountering them. I wouldn’t want to meet one, either. It was often said that if one encountered a woman alone after dark; it was most likely a fox in disguise. There were many stories about men who were seduced by foxes in the form of maidens and left naked and disoriented in an unfamiliar place, and others who were possessed by foxes and lashed out violently (similar to stories of possession in the western world).

In one tale I read when I was younger, two boys stumbled upon a wedding procession in the woods. Although they wore human clothing, it was obvious that the “people” were actually foxes. Upon being spotted, the boys ran. However, in the end, only one of the boys escaped, and the other was never seen again.

All hope was not lost; there were ways to tell if a woman was a fox. Even in human form, foxes retained a tail, so if you found their tail (after they were thoroughly drunk) you could be sure they were not human. Sometimes, when reflected in a mirror or water, it would show their alternate form. Other times, the fox-woman’s shadow had the shape of a fox.

In addition to that, ghosts and youkai are unable to say the same thing twice, the same holds true for kitsune. Often, they come up behind you and say “Moshi” as a greeting; then you turn around and wish you hadn’t. Chances are you’ll either get your soul stolen, or be caught off guard by foxes disguised as the aforementioned ethereal beauties. No fox can say “moshi moshi”. Therefore, before you turn around, you say “moshi moshi?” if they repeat “moshi moshi” then your soul (and sanity) isn’t in danger. On the other hand, if they only say “moshi” then I would run far, far, away without looking back. After phones were invented, those sneaky foxes discovered prank calling, so in order to be certain you aren’t speaking to some sneaky fox, you say “moshi moshi”.

Despite the fact that there are so many bad stories about kitsune, there are many heartwarming ones, too. There are stories of humans saving foxes and having the fox swear loyalty to them as well as stories of men marrying fox women and having human children (albeit supernaturally powered children) with them. They live happily until her secret is exposed and she has to leave.

Stories Involving Foxes:
The Fox's Wedding
How a Man Was Bewitched and Had His Head Shaved By The Foxes
Enough is Enough!, Fox Arson, and The Fox in the Brothel