the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: heavenly fox
Habitat: the sky
Diet: none; they no longer feed on human life force

Appearance: Tenko are good kitsune which possess divine powers. Of all the kinds of kitsune, they are the highest ranking. Usually they are described as having lived for one thousand years, possessing golden, silver, or white fur, and multiple (usually four) bushy tails. They are spiritual beings without physical bodies, so their actual appearance depends upon the form they decide to take. They often appear as beautiful human-like goddesses.

Behavior: Kitsune are commonly described as having a ranked hierarchy, with great power and divinity being acquired as they grow older. Additionally, older and more powerful kitsune tend to be benevolent and noble, while lower-ranked kitsune tend to behave wickedly and mischievously. Upon achieving the rank of tenko, a kitsune attains a level of power similar to a god and ceases to commit wicked deeds.

Interactions: Tenko are often worshiped as gods by humans, and they are known to grant boons and favors for the people who revere them. Like other kitsune, tenko can possess humans. When they do so, their host gains the tenko’s power of clairvoyance, and is able to correctly predict any future event.

Origin: Kitsune folklore originates in the folklore of ancient China, but has been heavily adapted by Japanese writers. In China, foxes were believed to transform into human women, and then use sex to drain men’s life force. A one hundred year old fox would appear as a youthful young beauty, while a thousand year old fox would appear as an insatiable whore. The idea that upon reaching one thousand years, a fox would cease to torment humans and become good, divine spirits also goes back to Chinese folklore, although it is worth noting that in order to achieve that rank, it must first feed off of human life force for one thousand years.

Kitsune monogatari, part of the Edo Period essay collection Kyūsensha manpitsu explains that kitsune are divided into two categories: zenko (good foxes) and nogitsune (wild foxes). Tenko are one of the five kinds of good kitsune. The others are kinko (gold foxes), ginko (silver foxes), kuroko (black foxes), and byakko (white foxes).

Another Edo Period document, Zen’an zuihitsu, defines four categories of kitsune. Nogitsune are the lowest ranking; these are the most wicked, and also the least magical. Kiko (spirit foxes) are higher ranking kitsune who are no longer confined to physical bodies and exist as spirits. Kūko (void foxes) are the second highest rank, possessing twice as much power as kiko. Finally, tenko are the top ranking kitsune, possessing magical powers on par with the gods.

Alphabetical list of yōkai