This portion of a Japanese print illustrates a werefox legend. The artist is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). The illustration is old enough to be in the public domain. Kitsune are the prankster werefoxes of Japan. They are usually thought to be foxes who turn into people instead of people who turn into foxes. Their transformation abilities are so powerful that kitsune can often turn into an exact copy of any person, leading to much mischief.

Where do kitsune live? Some of them settle down and marry human men, only taking their true forms by night, while others live permanently in the wilderness and only occasionally interact with real humans. So some of them might be mistaken for real people and seen in the village constantly, while others might be thought of as ordinary foxes until their powers are revealed.

These beliefs are connected with religion in many complex ways. The kitsune are associated with a god named "Inari" and may be regarded as Inari's angelic messengers. This is especially true for white foxes. They can live more than a thousand years (though most die much younger than this) and the older ones have so many magical powers that they are practically gods. People often suspected that the servants working in temple kitchens were actually werefoxes, if they came from some other district so that no locals knew them.

The kitsune could be noticed by small characteristics that set them apart from regular foxes and normal humans. The kitsune often have multiple tails in fox form, and may retain a tail in human form. Also, the shadow of the person may be shaped like a fox, or vice versa, and a mirror that is held up to a kitsune might show the alternate form instead. These ideas show up frequently in Japanese art. A kitsune is more frequently shown by small signs and signals than by an overt transformation scene.

Some families were thought to bind these magical foxes as servants, in much the same way that a European sorcerer might have a demon or familiar bound to do his bidding. These families sent their foxes on errands, had them deliver letters, and made them do cooking and housework. People would often use these legends as an excuse to keep from marrying into families that were supposed to keep fox servants.

Go to the Library
Find out more about the kitsune by reading pages 121-152 of the book Half Human, Half Animal: Tales of Werewolves and Related Creatures by Jamie Hall and pages 132-137 of the book Japanese Ghosts and Demons by Stephen Addiss.
Some noted kitsune novels are The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson and The Water of Possibility by Hiromi Goto.

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