Of the Kitsune – A Treatise in Japanese Yokai Mythology

When truly beginning to examine Yokai mythology, one thing must be made clear first of all. These are not things like dragons, elves, or other western mythological creatures. Japanese mythology has a very interesting way of looking at religion, and it is this drive that saw it's legends take up such deep, heavy mantles within the country's culture.

The word 'Yokai' can be dissected in an endless variety of ways, and none of them can properly encapsulate the native expression guised underneath. 'Spirit' is the most agreeable equivalent, as it serves comparably well to substitute, and thus it is this that is used most often. 'Demon' is also offered, though from the rather ambivalent approach that the majority of Japanese mythology takes to matters of moralistic implication, it is somewhat easily assumed that this term cannot be used in the truest extent of our strictly malevolent western definitions.

Covering Yokai, two broad generalisations can be made. First of all, most are elusive, somewhat intangible, and practice some form of disguise or other, whether that guise be a human form or that of an inconspicuous animal or part of the landscape; even manifesting as forces of the elements. Secondly, as previously stated, for the large part most will have at least some polarising nature or form, often between benevolence and evil. It is this trend that takes place throughout most of Japanese mythology, where matters of honour, spite, whim, and other such things take higher presidence than 'righteousness' itself. With this said, it is clear that the concept of most Yokai defies the black-and-white categorisation that western mythology holds, as well as the solid forms that it's denizens take. They are creatures of rumour, hypothesis, superstition, and omen.

Now to the subject of this paper. Strictly speaking, the work 'Kitsune' means little more than 'fox'. As will be covered in-depth later, this is one of the first indicators of the fact that for the Japanese, the world of mythology and the 'real' world were one and the same, and for many this is still true. However, for many, many years, it was believed by the majority of people that all – yes, all – foxes were indeed 'yokai', and thus blessed with uncanny wisdom and supernatural power. Outside of the direct translation, however, there are many assumptions and implications that come with 'Kitsune'. More so than the anthropomorphisms that we find in Romance languages like English, by matter of fact, where one may say 'fox', and find oneself reminded of an image of cunning and wiliness. This is also true for 'kitsune', but in the same sense that 'yokai' defies equivalence, this does also.

In truth, it is again hard – truly almost impossible – to pry the spirit world of Japanese foxes and the dull monotony of science apart when dealing with the term. Also, it helps none that, again as stated previously, all foxes were for some time considered entirely yokai, the trends and superstitions of which can still be found today. But what is a Kitsune? If it defies classification as a simple fox, then what bridges that difference? As with most subjects of Japanese mythology, there are many kinds of Kitsune, and under them the clouds of speculation and differing opinions thrive. However, this is a depthless subject for a later time, and it is thankfully true that a number of statements remain almost unanimously true across allperceived variety of Kitsune.

First of all, as would befit a trickster of such voracious ambition, most all Kitsune are believed to be able to take on a human form at will, or in some circumstances in particular situations. I call this the Daini no Takashi – Second Form. There are varying accounts on the strength of this guise, with some stating it as little more than a thin glamour, and others a full transformation. Also, there are a number of factors and tells supposedly crippling to these disguises; generally along the lines of being frightened or spooked into abandoning it's form, casting a fox-shaped shadow while in human shape and other tells, with some accounts even going as far to say that the fox will retain some ofit's fur or tail. We will delve into this shape-changing ability later in greater depth.

Secondly, we have the concepts of kitsunetsuki and the hoshi no tama. Kitsunetsuki is widely considered the act or state of being under the magical persuasion of a fox, roughly translated as 'fox-possession', though it is nothing so harsh and malevolent as the horror movies of today would portray the word. Usually, the subject will find himself compelled to do something or act some way, generally after he has spited or done harm to a fox, but also at the creature's humorous whim or pleasure. Common tales involve stripping and running down a street, eating themselves to the point of sickness, and giving away all one's worldly wealth to the poor.

Hoshi no Tama translates roughly to 'star-gem', or something of that trend, depending on which etymology is used. However, in the context of association with Kitsune, it generally implies the presence of a power- or soul-vessel that the creatures occasionally are depicted having - not unlike in concept the phylactery of a lich in western mythology, though nothing so grave and sinister in origin. It purportedly is the source of their potency, and prolonged separation from the gem is told to cause the Kitsune itself waning strength and possible death.

And, lastly, for this chapter at least, we have the factor of multiple tails. True, it is often implied or left only to logical assumption that a fox with multiple tails may work to conceal this – as one could only assume it to be a rather obtrusive and messy affair, but this is one of the strongest trends throughout the mythology in general. I dedicate a fair quantitiy of writing to this concept later on, so for this moment it suffices to say that a fox may have up to nine tails – one for approximately each hundred years he has lived – and that with each new appendage he finds higher levels of wisdom and power, at nine supposedly reaching utter omnipotence by some accounts.

These things serve to outline the very basics of what a Kitsune is, and what it is supposed to be. However, as will be covered in depth later, there are so many varying degrees and facets of separation, and it is this depth that makes the legends so intriguing and enticing to the eye and the creative mind