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Kitsune (Part 1)


Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox. Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore. Stories depict them as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. Foremost among these is the ability to assume human form. While some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others — as foxes in folklore often do — others portray them as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives.

Foxes and human beings lived in close proximity in ancient Japan; this companionship gave rise to legends about the creatures. Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami or spirit, and serve as his 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.



A nine-tailed fox, from the Qing edition of the Shan Hai Jing. Fox spirits of Chinese folklore are similar to kitsune.There is debate whether the kitsune myths originated entirely from foreign sources or are in part an indigenous Japanese concept dating as far back as the fifth century BC. It is widely agreed that at least some fox myths in Japan can be traced to China, Korea, or India. Many of the earliest surviving stories are recorded in the Konjaku Monogatari, an 11th-century collection of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese narratives. Chinese folk tales tell of kitsune-like fox spirits that may have up to nine tails.

In contrast, Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D.; the only things imported from China or Korea were the kitsune"s negative attributes. He states that, according to a 16th-century book of records called the Nihon Ryakki, foxes and human beings lived in close proximity in ancient Japan, and he contends that indigenous legends about the creatures arose as a result.[3] Inari scholar Karen Smyers notes that the idea of the fox as seductress and the connection of the fox myths to Buddhism were introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese stories, but she maintains that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japan.


Japan is home to two red fox subspecies: the Hokkaido fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki, pictured), and the Japanese red fox (Vulpes vulpes japonica).



The full etymology is unknown. The oldest known usage of the word is in the 794 text Shin"yaku Kegonky? Ongi Shiki . Other old sources include Nihon Ry?iki (810–824) and Wamy? Ruijush? (c. 934). These oldest sources are written in Man"y?gana which clearly identifies the historical spelling as ki1tune. Following several diachronic phonological changes, this becomes kitsune.

Many etymological suggestions have been made; however, there is no general agreement.

My?goki (1268) suggests that it is so called because it is "always (tsune) yellow (ki)".

Early Kamakura period Mizukagami indicates that it means "came (ki) [perfective case particle tsu] to bedroom (ne)" due to a legend that a kitsune would change into one"s wife and bear children.

Arai Hakuseki in T?ga (1717) suggests that ki means "stench", tsu is a possessive particle, and ne is related to inu, the word for "dog".

Tanikawa Kotosuga in Wakun no Shiori (1777–1887) suggests that ki means "yellow", tsu is a possessive particle, and ne is related to neko, the word for cat.

?tsuki Fumihiko in Daigenkai (1932–1935) proposes that kitsu is an onomatopoeia for the animal, and that ne is an affix or an honorific word meaning a servant of an Inari shrine.

According to Nozaki, the word kitsune was originally onomatopoeia. Kitsu represented a fox"s yelp and came to be the general word for fox. -Ne signifies an affectionate mood, which Nozaki presents as further evidence of an established, non-imported tradition of benevolent foxes in Japanese folklore. Kitsu is now archaic; in modern Japanese, a fox"s cry is transcribed as kon kon or gon gon.

One of the oldest surviving kitsune tales provides a widely known folk etymology of the word kitsune; the story is now known to be false. Unlike most tales of kitsune who become human and marry human males, this one does not end tragically:

Ono, an inhabitant of Mino (says an ancient Japanese legend of A.D. 545), spent the seasons longing for his ideal of female beauty. He met her one evening on a vast moor and married her. Simultaneously with the birth of their son, Ono"s dog was delivered of a pup which as it grew up became more and more hostile to the lady of the moors. She begged her husband to kill it, but he refused. At last one day the dog attacked her so furiously that she lost courage, resumed vulpine shape, leaped over a fence and fled.

"You may be a fox," Ono called after her, "but you are the mother of my son and I love you. Come back when you please; you will always be welcome."

So every evening she stole back and slept in his arms.

Because the fox returns to her husband each night as a woman but leaves each morning as a fox, she is called Kitsune. In classical Japanese, kitsu-ne means come and sleep, and ki-tsune means always comes.

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