An Introduction to Japanese Yōkai: Kitsune

Amongst the numerous hobbies that I enjoy, is the study of Japanese history and culture. Nestled deep in Japan’s long history are countless tales and records involving the supernatural and extraordinary. The most striking are those that surround the Yōkai. Yōkai are spirits, demons, or otherwise supernatural entities. And they are numerous, popping up all over Japanese recorded history. Even powerful leaders like Toyotomi Hideyoshi have pondered their existence and meaning. Many Yōkai are perceived to be friendly or benign. Many are seen to be a bane to the people they come in contact with, often causing mischief and problems wherever they appear. Some are even seen as holy, and tied directly to the various gods in the Shinto religion. This series is an introduction into the very deep world of the Japanese supernatural.


Kitsune [pronounced: Kit Soo Neh] are some of my favorite Yōkai in Japanese folklore. Kitsune literally means fox. So, the word kitsune actually refers to the animal foxes as well as the fox spirits. In current Japanese culture the animal fox is usually* written as キツネ(katakana version) or きつね(hiragana version). The Kitsune spirit though, as seen above in the sub-title, uses 狐(traditional kanji version). Confusing? Yeah, calling a mystical spirit and a flesh and blood animal by the same name could get confusing. But fox spirits often resembled regular foxes. So picking a spirit out from an animal also could get confusing. But let’s move on before we all go crosseyed, shall we?

*The Japanese language has a lot of nuances and loopholes. And the three writing forms can get very cumbersome. When I was first starting out learning, I hated the written language. One day you may see a word written in Hiragana. The next day, the same word is written in Kanji. They may mean the same thing. They may mean something completely different. Or someone just may have forgotten the correct kanji for a word(which does happen), and decided to write the word in an easier text form.

The Holy Kitsune

Image source Ukiyo-e(wood block print) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicting a warrior having an interraction with the Inari God and one of her fox servants.

Fox spirits can take multiple forms and sizes, and they are not limited to the size and shape to that of a typical fox. Fox spirits can also use magic, and said magic grows stronger with age. Some have theorized that Kitsune spirits were once real foxes that became Yōkai spirits as they aged.

The most widely known spirit foxes are the holy Kitsune. They are the vessels of the fox god Inari, in the Shinto religion. In what is now considered to be ancient Japan, Inari shrines of various sizes were very common across all regions of the country. A good many Inari shrines actually still remain in present day Japan, but not nearly as many as there once were. The most famous is Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, and you may have seen pictures of it in various places without realizing it. Very picturesque, the head shrine devoted to Inari is often depicted with its numerous orange Torii gates that create what look like tunnels.

I have yet to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, as I haven’t explored southern Kyoto yet. But it is on the short list. I am ten years over due for a trip back to the ancient capital of Japan.

Examples of Inari’s influence on ancient Japan can also be seen in modern pop-culture. Particularly in the video game Ghost of Tsushima. In the game, if you encounter a wild fox, the fox will lead you to a small(or large) shrine where you can offer a prayer to Inari. In the game, the foxes acting as guides was a very nice touch. Because Inari foxes were also seen as the messengers of the numerous Japanese gods. 

Ghost of Tsushima. A wild fox at a small Inari shrine overlooking the burning Tsushima Island as the Mongol invasion is underway. Image source

The Inari Kitsune spirits of Japanese folklore are said to be radiant white in color. White is known in many cultures to be the color of good. The most powerful and revered of the Kitsune were the Nine Tailed Foxes. Or Kyubi no Kitsune(literally: nine tailed fox). These majestic foxes are prevalent in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese folklore and were often depicted as sleek/graceful beings with long flowing tails.

The Mischievous Kitsune

Other, non-holy, versions of Kitsune are known to be tricksters and troublemakers. Using their magical powers to confuse or exploit their targets. These targets were usually said to be rich or arrogant people. Maybe a corrupt priest. Or perhaps an unjust Daimyo( a region’s ruler). Their magic could take the form of Kitsunebi, or fox fire. This fox fire could be perceived as strange lights in the night sky, or even actual fire. Images and depictions of Kitsune often show the tips of their tails glowing with the fox fire flame.

Image source Ukiyo-e(wood block print) of a gathering of Kitsune on New Years Eve. Their Kitsunebi(fox fire) illuminating the night.

Kitsune spirits can take human form. And they are depicted as such in many ancient artworks. Though, this ability is usually developed after about 50 years or so. In their human form, there are often telltale signs that they are not human, though they try their best to keep this secret. Maybe their fox ears are visible, or perhaps their tails are poking out of the back of a kimono or yukata. In some art depictions, while they seem human to the naked eye, their shadow cast is that of a fox. During their shapeshifting, various things can cause a Kitsune’s humanoid illusion to fade. The easiest way is to startle the Kitsune. As foxes are naturally skittish.

The Tale Of Kuzunoha

Image source An Ukiyo-e(wood block print) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, depicting a female Kitsune spirit known as Kuzunoha looking over her sleeping child. Her shadow casts her true form. Kuzunoha was a popular subject in Kabuki plays.

One of the most widely known tales involving a Kitsune in human form is the tale of Kuzunoha.

Kuzunoha was a holy Kitsune maiden that was trapped by a hunter. One day, a man confronts the hunter and battles with him to try to save the entrapped fox. The man regularly prays at a local Inari shrine, so he believes that foxes should be protected. Becoming victorious, the man helps the trapped white fox, who disappears. With the deed done, it was time to go home. However, during the fight the man became injured, and making his way home along would be impossible. It is then that a beautiful woman appears out of almost nowhere. She helps him back to his home and nurses him back to good health. The woman was named Kuzunoha. Her name was derived from the Kudzu trees indigenous to the area, and literally means Kudzu Leaf.

Image source Print by Yoshitoshi. Depicting Kuzunoha’s son realizing his mother true form, and Kuzunoha fleeing.

The man and Kuzunoha became lovers and even had a son. But one day the child, having inherited some of Kuzunoha’s powers became able to see through his mothers illusion, and sees part of her tail. He had discovered his mother was not human. This forces Kuzunoha to leave their home and return to life in the forest. She leaves only a poem behind for her family. In the poem, she asks them to meet her at a shrine deep in the forest. The man, after talking with his son, finally realized who his wife is, and rushes into the forest with their son. When they arrive at the shrine, a beautiful white fox appears. The same fox the man had rescued years ago. The Kitsune spirit of the shrine. Kuzunoha. She gives her beloved family two mystical gifts and then disappears into the forest forever.

For further information about Yōkai, I highly suggest A website run by Matthew Meyer. He has studied Yōkai and Japanese folklore intensively, and has also released a series of books that he wrote, designed, and illustrated. All devoted to the subject. His books and website were a major source of information for this series, and I regularly reference them. They are:

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]

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Robert is: a Hobbyist, a Music Lover, an RPG Gamer, a Mustard Lover, Chaotic Neutral, a Japanese Speaker, a Veteran, an Otaku, a Table Tennis Player, an Anime Fan, an Aviation Professional, a New York Rangers Fan, a Chaos Lover With Loyalist Tendencies.

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