Japanese Legends: Episode 1, "The Kitsune"- The Modernist Son

Image Credit: Mythical Creatures Guide


Over the last few months during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have gained further admiration for Japanese culture. In saying that, I started learning Japanese last week (at the time of originally writing this article) which can be attributed to my time spent watching anime such as Inuyasha (in its original run from 2000 to 2004). With respect to the Inuyasha anime, the franchise draws from various folkloric motifs such as ghosts (although this relies on validity of belief from a folkloric perspective), demons, and the issue of life after death. Something to consider is that during my career at Memorial University, I decided to choose folklore as my minor and it has become pretty significant in my life. At first, folklore was a course I chose during my first year at Memorial because my friend was taking it. However, folklore became something that truly interested me as I entered my twenties. Consequently, watching anime such as Inuyasha garnered my interest in folklore which circulates throughout Japanese culture. Although the aforementioned franchise is set primarily during Japan's feudal era, the following folkloric narratives in this series will not necessarily be exclusive from Feudal Japanese culture.

Folklore and Mythology:

The primary religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism, which heavily influences the depiction of Japanese folklore. From a general perspective, religion plays an important role in folklore around the world. According to the New World Encyclopedia:

Japanese mythology is a complex system of beliefs that also embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agriculture-based folk religion. The Shinto pantheon alone boasts an uncountable number of kami (deities or spirits). One notable aspect of Japanese mythology is that it provided a creation story for Japan and attributed divine origins to the Japanese Imperial family, assigning them godhood. The Japanese word for the Emperor of Japan, tennō, means "heavenly emperor. ( New World Encyclopedia)

Although folkloric stories from Japan have assigned the Imperial family as having descended from the gods, much of Japanese folklore actually comes from ancient India and was used to shape Japanese cultural folktales; such that ancient stories taken from India underwent variation in order to fit a specific Japanese cultural context:

Japanese folklore has been influenced by foreign literature. Some stories of ancient India were influential in shaping Japanese stories, though Indian themes were greatly modified and adapted to appeal to the sensibilities of common people of Japan. (New World Encyclopedia).

Much like folklore from around the globe, preexisting stories are localized or become "vernacular" in order to make sense at a personal level. For instance, the Newfoundland concept of Mummering actually derives from Scotland and Wales in the United Kingdom. However, the Newfoundland version of Mummering undergoes significant changes due to its variation from the potential original source in the United Kingdom. Although not much is actually known about Mummering in the United Kingdom, the concept of participants wearing gloves on their feet and covering their face is unique to the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (my home province).

Furthering the Focus on Japanese Folklore:

A common motif in folktales involves humorous or bizarre characters which serve as the focal point of entertainment, and this is no different with Japanese folklore. Moreover, narrative motifs such as bizarre situations and supernatural beings play an important role in the presentation of Japanese folk narratives. Spirits which are commonly featured in Japanese folklore are those of gods and revered spirits, monster-spirits, ghosts, and even animals with supernatural powers such as transforming cats. I had previously mentioned the anime Inuyasha, which features many of these folkloric motifs. An episode from the first series (2000-2001) features a water demon who demands human sacrifices (specifically) children as a means of sustaining power. However, Inuyasha, Miroku, and Kagome are able to defeat the water demon. Nevertheless, watching the aforementioned anime during the current pandemic has incited my interest to learn more about Japanese folklore.

Narratives featured in Japan's Folkloric World:

The first narrative I discovered was that of the Kitsune, which is literally a Nine-tailed Fox. Although the Kitsune portrays wisdom and hope for the common people of Japan, this becomes interesting through the concept of variation. Keeping that in mind, the Kitsune is depicted as a malevolent creature in some versions of the story. Drawing from the literal sense, "Kitsune" is the Japanese word for fox. In terms of a folkloristic context, foxes are frequent subjects of Japanese culture:

Stories depict them (foxes) as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. According to Yōkai folklore, all foxes have the ability to shape shift into men or women. While some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others—as foxes in folklore often do—other stories portray them as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives. (Yōkai Fandom)

Drawing from the aforementioned statement, it is evident that folklore surrounding foxes exists in narrative variation. On one side of the coin, foxes are depicted as master tricksters and evil. However, other depictions insist that the fox or kitsune is a creature of nobility and loyalty. Keeping that in mind, the societal perception of the kitsune heavily relies on context and opinion. For instance, people living in a certain area of Japan might believe the kitsune is evil because this narrative has been handed down through oral transmission; generation to generation. Nevertheless, people living less than a mile away might be inclined to believe the kitsune is the manifestation of a faithful guardian because that is the narrative they were told; which draws from the validity of belief.

Something to consider is that human beings and foxes lived together in close proximity during ancient times in Japan. The relationship between humans and foxes depicted divine connotations, according to the common people during this period of history. Consequently, the relationship between foxes and humans inspired legends about the creatures; known in Japan as the kitsune. In most cases, legends are often loosely inspired by real world events. However, legends cannot entirely be proven false. That is what makes folklore interesting. There is no way of proving whether something is true or not, such that legends rely on the validity of belief. Moreover, the following depicts the nature of the Nine-tailed Kitsune narrative:

Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami or spirit, and serve as its messengers. This role has reinforced the fox's supernatural significance. The more tails a kitsune has—they may have as many as nine—the older, wiser, and more powerful it is. Because of their potential power and influence, some people make offerings to them as to a deity. (Yōkai Fandom)

Final Thoughts:

Within a folkloristic context, the supernatural is usually dismissed. However in the case of the Nine-tailed Kitsune, it is important to acknowledge this as a legitimate aspect of folklore. The issue of people genuinely believing the kitsune is a manifestation of a messenger for good things to come, effectively supports the validity of belief. Although some might dismiss this idea, the meaning behind the kitsune narrative is what makes the story so powerful. Drawing from the aforementioned statement, this becomes quite interesting to me because individuals are willing to make sacrifices to the kitsune hoping for good fortune in return. Whether the story is legitimate, is not the focal point. Instead, the fact that individuals are willing to believe in the supernatural kitsune becomes the most significant aspect of the legend.

Note from the Author: Thanks for reading the latest entry. This piece was originally written in the summer of 2020 and has been one of my most successful pieces I wrote before creating my website. Stay tuned for #episode2!

(c) The Modernist Son, 2020

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