the online database of Japanese folkore

Kitsune


きつね

Translation: fox
Alternate names: unique names exist in many individual instances
Habitat: found throughout Japan
Diet: omnivorous; fond of fried tofu

Appearance: Foxes, or kitsune, are found all across Japan. They are identical to wild foxes found elsewhere in the world apart from their incredible magical powers. Their cute faces and small size make them particularly loved by most people.

Behavior: There are two major variations of kitsune. Holy foxes are servants of the Shinto deity Inari, and Inari’s shrines are decorated with statues and images of these foxes. Legends tell of celestial foxes providing wisdom or service to good and pious humans. These holy foxes act as messengers of the gods and mediums between the celestial and human worlds. They often protect humans or places, provide good luck, and ward evil spirits away. More common are the wild foxes which delight in mischief, pranks, or evil. There are stories in which wild foxes trick or even possess humans, and cause them to behave strangely. Despite this wicked nature, even wild foxes keep their promises, remember friendships, and repay any favors done for them.

Interactions: Most tales of kitsune are about wild foxes punishing wicked priests, greedy merchants, and boastful drunkards. They vex their targets by creating phantom sounds and sights, stealing from them, or otherwise humiliating them publicly. Certain mental disorders have been attributed to possession by kitsune (known as kitsunetsuki). Mysterious illusory fires and strange lights in the sky are said to be caused by their magic, and are known as kitsunebi, or “fox fire.”

Other forms: Kitsune are extremely intelligent and powerful shape-shifters. They frequently harass humans by transforming into giants or other fearsome monsters. Sometimes they do this just for pranks, and sometimes for more nefarious purposes. They are skilled enough to even transform into exact likenesses of individual people, often appearing in the guise of beautiful human women in order to trick young men. On more than one occasion, this has resulted in a marriage with an unwitting human. Some kitsune even spend most of their lives in human form, adopting human names and customs, taking human jobs, and even raising families. When startled, or drunk, or careless, a patch of their magical disguise can fail—the kitsune’s true nature may be revealed by a tail, a swatch of fur, fangs, or some other vulpine feature.

Alphabetical list of yōkai