The Folklore of the Japanese Fox

Book Cover: Come and Sleep
Editions:Kindle: $ 0.99
Pages: 85

Ideal wife and sexual vampire. Prankster and saint. Tree and train. The Japanese fox left her paw-print on Japanese culture. She challenges traditional, negative views of women. She brings harmony and division. She possesses and protects. She is the shape of Japan’s soul.

Discover why the fox is Japan’s most storied animal. Follow her as she travels from China and gains her forsaken seraphim name: kitsune.


Introduction. The Immigrant Fox

Something about the fox—her red fur, her white-tufted tail, or her uncanny intelligence—haunts our history. Our stories speak about the fox more than any other animal. Stories from across the world speak of her as a trickster, a demon, a devoted mother, an ideal wife, and a divine messenger. In Jewish tradition, Samson tied three-hundred foxes together by their tails, fastened torches to them, and let them loose to burn the fields, groves, and vineyards of the Philistines. Europe’s tricky fox, Reynard, loves to tweak the noses of medieval aristocrats and clergy. Wherever foxes run, people whisper of their cunning, pranks, and magic. Yet of all cultures that speak of foxes, Japanese culture has the most unique relationship.


The vixen wraps her tail around every aspect of Japanese culture, from the thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto Goddess of Rice, to how people answer telephones.

In order to understand Japan, we must first understand the fox. She is a creature of field and farm, and she runs with the common people more than high priests and aristocrats. But this doesn’t stop her from playing pranks and causing problems among the ruling class as even the Shogun Hideyoshi discovered.

The Japanese fox lives on the border of the commonplace and the mysterious, never quite fitting into a neat compartment. The fox tangles positive with negative and divinity with demon. She hunts fields and wanders towns, straddling both the human world and the animal world. Living on this edge gives her the ability to tap into both worlds. Her flexibility in folklore makes her hard to pin down. She is both saint and devil. She represents Japan’s soul and humanity’s darker drives.

The Origin of Fox Tales

Many scholars believe Japanese fox stories originated in China around 333 BC and traveled to Japan with other Chinese ideas. Not all scholars agree with this assessment, however. The Ainu, a people native to northern Japan, have their own tradition of fox stories that developed apart from Chinese stories. Japanese fox tales developed features neither Ainu nor Chinese stories have: Inari-foxes and fox-sorcery.  The origin of the fox doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. Chinese fox tales can easily mix with Ainu and other native stories to create the Japanese vixen. One fox story captures the relationship of Japanese fox tales and their origin stories from China:

One day all the animals in Japan heard the tiger, king of beasts, was coming to their country to fight with them. They were afraid that the tiger would prove too powerful for the bear, so the fox was ordered to meet the tiger, and if possible outwit him with cunning; failing that, the bear would try his strength. The tiger, having reached Japan, came to a large forest a thousand miles in diameter. The fox met him and said, “How do you do, sir? I have heard you are the king of animals in foreign countries. Is it true, great sir?”

“Yes, I am, and no one can run faster than me.”

“Then will you not run a race with me?” asked the fox.

“Yes, but you don’t suppose you can win, do you?” said the tiger.

The retired to one side of the forest and began to run. The cunning fox lightly leaped up and laid hold of the tiger’s tail. The tiger, intent on the race, ran until exhausted. The sly fox leapt over his head and was declared the winner.

This story refers to conflict between China, the tiger, and Japan, the fox. But the tale reveals how the fox rode into Japan on the tail of China’s influence. Native and imported fox stories ran the breadth of Japan on the fast moving influence of Chinese culture. On their journey, the tales became something unique to Japanese culture, building and expanding upon the patterns China provided.

The story also points to the cunning of the Japanese fox. She understands she couldn’t fight the tiger like the bear could. In fact, the animals worry the bear lacks the tiger’s strength. So they ask the fox to use her cunning to outwit the tiger. In another Chinese fable from 333 BC, the fox warns the tiger to beware her cunning:

The Sovereign of  Heaven  has privileged me  among all  animals by  giving me  greater  cunning than  to  others.  Should you devour me,  you would  certainly displease him very much.

 Fox Behavior and Traits

Understanding basic fox behavior helps us understand why the fox tickles our imagination. Despite being a canine, the fox shares more in common with cats than dogs. She stalks prey like a cat does, and she has paws with partially retractable claws. She even has vertical-slit pupils like a cat.

Foxes dash across the northern hemisphere and live in a variety of environments. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have desert foxes. The Arctic Circle has its own type of fox. The fox lives and adapts to its environment with ease because she can eat a variety of food. A study in Missouri found foxes eat 34 different mammals, 14 species of birds, 15 families of insects, and 21 varieties of plants.They change their diet based on the season and climate. During summer and autumn, foxes often eat berries and fruit. They also bury surplus food to eat later. When burying food in snow, the fox will disguise the cache and brush away her paw prints. Not only does this behavior suggest forethought, it also reveals fox intelligence and cunning. Foxes can remember dozens of cache locations.

Foxes are solitary hunters, but they also form monogamous relationships to raise kits. Unlike many animals, both male and female foxes care for their young, and daughters from previous litters sometimes help with raising their siblings. Fox families provide a foundation for folktales about human-fox relationships and the idea of the divine-mother fox.  Folktales do not come out of mere superstition. The stories enhanced what people understood and tried to explain the mysteries they could not.


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