the online database of Japanese folkore

Ōji no kitsune


Translation: the foxes of Ōji

Appearance: The town of Ōji, today part of Kita, Tōkyō, is home to the Ōji Inari Shrine. This major shrine is famous for kitsune and kitsunebi-related folklore. It is also the head shrine for all kitsune in the Kantō Region. Every year on New Year’s Eve, the kitsune of eastern Japan gather in Ōji to give thanks and make wishes for the new year.

Origin: Before the 20th century, Ōji was an area of rice paddies and farms. The visiting kitsune gathered under a huge hackberry tree by the road. The kitsunebi they used to light their way could be seen for miles around. The farmers and merchants of Edo would observe the lights and try to predict the coming year’s fortune. Because Inari is a god of the harvest and business, a large number of kitsune gathering at the shrine meant a prosperous year.

Legends: A rakugo story called Ōji no kitsune takes place in Ōji. In a reversal of the normal pattern, the kitsune in this story is outfoxed by the human.

A merchant was returning from a visit to the Ōji Inari Shrine when he witnessed a kitsune transform into a beautiful woman. The kitsune of Ōji were famous for playing tricks on people, so he looked around to see who her target would be. He was the only person around. Rather than becoming her target, the merchant decided to turn the tables and play a trick on her.

He called out to the woman, “Otama! It’s me! Come, let’s have tea together at this shop!” He motioned to a nearby store, Ōgiya. The kitsune, thinking she had found her mark, followed him. The two of them entered the shop and took a seat on the second floor.

The merchant let the kitsune eat and drink as much as she wanted. Eventually, drunk and full, she fell asleep on the floor. The merchant went downstairs, ordered three dishes of tamagoyaki to go, and then told the shopkeeper that the woman upstairs would cover the bill. Then he slipped out.

A server went upstairs to wake up the sleeping woman and ask her to pay. The kitsune was shocked. Her disguise failed, revealing her tail and ears. The restaurant staff were as surprised as the kitsune. They chased her all around the restaurant, beating and yelling at her. Somehow, the kitsune managed to escape, and ran back to her hole in the ground.

The owner of the restaurant came out to see what all the commotion was. When the staff told him what had happened, he scolded them. “This restaurant owes its success to the Ōji Inari Shrine. How could you beat one of its kitsune?” Together, the owner and the staff went to the shrine to apologize and ask for forgiveness.

Meanwhile, the merchant arrived at his friend’s house. As they shared the tamagoyaki, the merchant told his friend what had happened. His friend looked worried. “Kitsune are vindictive. It’s probably going to bring a curse down upon your whole family!”

The following day, the merchant returned to Ōji to make amends. Near the place where he saw the kitsune the day before, a fox cub was playing near a hole in the ground. The merchant told the fox cub what had happened, and apologized for his behavior. He left a wrapped present beside the fox hole as a sign of his contrition.

The cub brought the present in to its mother, who was inside the hole sulking. He told her that the human come by to apologize for tricking her, and left this present. The kitsune was skeptical, but she told him to open the box carefully. It was filled with botamochi–rice cakes covered with brown, mashed sweet beans.

“They look delicious mom! Can we eat them?” asked the cub.

The kitsune replied, “No. Humans are vindictive. It’s probably horse shit!”

Alphabetical list of yōkai