Translation: good fox, virtuous fox
Alternate names: reiko, inari kitsune, osakitōge
Habitat: forests, fields, mountains, and shrines
Appearance: Zenko are good kitsune who serve the gods and perform good deeds.
Behavior: Zenko society is extremely complex. It mirrors human society, with families and tribes, ranks, and various levels of awards and degrees. Sources disagree on the exact structure of zenko society. According to one common classification, Zenko are divided into five groups based on fur color: tenko (heavenly foxes), kinko (gold foxes), ginko (silver foxes), byakko (white foxes), and kokuko (black foxes). Another classification divides them into three social ranks with no regard for coloring: tenko (heavenly foxes), kūko (sky foxes), and kiko (spirit foxes). Still other classifications exist. Individual shrines such as the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyōto often have their own degrees and ranks to bestow upon hard-working zenko. The one area where everyone agrees is that zenko stand in stark contrast to yako (wild foxes).
Evil behavior frequently attributed to kitsune is always the work of yako, not zenko. Whereas yako have no interest in advancement in kitsune society, zenko work hard to improve themselves and increase their social standing. Zenko may occasionally play tricks or pranks on people, but they do not seriously harm or kill humans.
Zenko serve the gods as messengers, facilitating communications between humans and kami. They are most often found in the service of the Shintō deity Inari or the Buddhist Dakini. Zenko can even be enshrined as gods themselves, or as manifestations or emanations of higher deities.
Origin: Kitsune monogatari, part of the Edo period essay collection Kyūsensha manpitsu, is a well-known source on the structure of kitsune society. It claims to be the recorded words of a kitsune who possessed a human and discussed the different tribes of zenko and the ranks of kitsune society through its host’s mouth. The kitsune made a very clear point that there was a distinction between benevolent zenko and wicked yako.