Kitsune Onna: The Fox Woman

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Many, many years ago, a young man in Gifu was lovestruck by a beautiful woman in a field. Determined to make her his wife, he proposed on the spot. To his great delight, the coquettish lady agreed, and they were married.

Their marriage was a happy one, and in the first year, the wife gifted her husband a son, strong as a god, and as fast as one, too. Yet the husband’s dog and her own puppy would always growl and snap at the wife when she passed them. The wife, fearing the animals, begged her husband to get rid of them, but he could not bring himself to do so. 

One day, the dogs at last attacked the wife, who, jumping on a rice barrel, suddenly revealed herself to be a fox. Her husband, exposed to the truth, lamented her discovery, for though they could no longer be together, he still loved her dearly. He begged his wife to return to him, and so she did, every night, in the guise of a woman, until, at the end of her lifespan, she passed to the next life.

Tales of men marrying trickster wives are as old as myth itself. Every culture has its own version: the mermaid, the witch, the frog, the genie. In China and Japan, trickster brides come in the form of the fox, and while typically harmless to those that are good-spirited, their nature can sometimes cause great misfortune for their husbands. Never mind the horror at realizing the one you have lain with as a bride is in fact a vixen.

The vulpine myths of Japan are extensive, and many lead to the god Inari, god of food (particularly rice) and agriculture. Like Odin’s ravens in Norse mythology, Inari keeps messenger foxes, who tell him of the deeds of the people. Should you visit Inari Shrine in Fushimi, perhaps the most famous tourist spot in all of Japan, you’ll see no shortage of the foxes sent to keep an eye on you.

Fushimi Inari Shrine Foxes

There are a number of animals in Japanese mythology that have the ability to shape-shift, or otherwise terrorize the populace. Tanuki (raccoon dogs), cats, and weasels parallel many of the fox’s traits, but none are quite as elegant or sensual as the fox, which, even in English, is used as a metaphor for a seductress or cocktease.

Interestingly, the fox had very few negative traits attached to its myths well through the 4th century, until Buddhism and stories from China made their way to Japan, and the fox’s often playful antics were restructured to be more of tales of caution. However,the duality of the fox persisted, and these days, kitsune are known to attack only those who are greedy, insincere, or foul, while keeping their promises and playing harmless pranks for fun.

Fox makes a bet with Tanuki. Art by Yoshitaka Amano.
Fox makes a bet with Tanuki. Art by Yoshitaka Amano.

Some readers of the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman may be familiar with the fox wife already – over a decade ago, a version of Dream Hunters was published with the artwork of world-renowned artist Yoshitaka Amano (concept artist for Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D).

The novella uses the kitsune as protagonist, showing the playful turned loyal fox as a creature fighting to defend the life of her precious monk friend from a group of men planning to kill him. She gets help from the King of All Night’s Dreaming as she completes the various trials set out for her.

As a short read, Dream Hunters touches on the mythos of the fox beautifully, and Amano’s accompanying illustrations are simply astounding. I highly recommend it as a read.

Recommended Reading:

Kitsune Onna @ yokai.com
Kitsune @ Wikipedia

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14 Comments

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  1. Loved the story you opened with, it’s sweet 🙂

    I’ve always been fascinated with this myth. I love shape-shifters in general, but the fox-woman always has a special place in my heart. Don’t know why.

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  2. Dream Hunters is one of my very favorite of the Sandman series, even though it’s not really tied into that overall story. The book is just so….Beautiful. BRB, off to read it. 😀

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  3. Interesting. I have heard of the fox-lady character. As you know in European popular old fairy tales and parables, the fox is seen as clever / wiley in not always a positive way. I’m not familiar with European mermaid brides in tales. Obviously I haven’t read enough fairytales. And I read them in full thick volumes of fairy tales when I was 8-9 yrs. old..abit late in life, because my father (only parent who could read English) didn’t read to us before going to sleep. We did our own reading…to fast-track our English literacy skills. So I bypassed a chunk of childhood picture books..

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  4. I’ve encountered tales of the fox wives before, but not this variant. It makes me wonder what happened to the son after his mother’s identity was revealed! (It also makes the historian in me wonder if women in pre-industrial Japan were ever accused of being foxes, tanuki, et cetera, in the way that women in pre-industrial Europe were accused of being witches…)

    I’ll have to look into “Dream Hunters” over winter break. It sounds like a great read, and I love Amano’s artwork.

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  5. This story sounded oddly familiar… and then I remembered that I’d read about the kitsune recently! I’m slowly making my way through Lucy Cooper’s Element Encyclopedia of Fairies. It covers the history, legends, and folklore of fairies, but it also has entries on a wide range of spirits and creatures from all over the world, including the kitsune. Every time a Japanese “creature” pops, I think, “I wonder if Alex has heard of this!”

    Anyway, wonderful job as usual. The legend itself is very bittersweet, and it’s fascinating to see how other cultures view or perceive the fox (trickster, seductress, messenger / guardian, etc.).

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  6. “Dream Hunters” is an excellent book. It’s been ages since I read it, but I well remember the artwork.

    This is similar to the Kumiho (구미호) or “nine-tailed fox” from Korea. Although there are rare instances of the kumiho being benevolent, most Korean tales depict them as not the sort of creature you want to cross paths with. Interestingly, there are a number of stories in Korea that tell of a kumiho becoming human… most of them are tragic and rarely end well.

    You might like “The Fox Sister” comic which is based upon a kumiho looking to become human by eating the livers of her victims. There was also a TV show called “Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child” (Korean translation).

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  7. Reblogged this on Alex Hurst and commented:

    I’m over at Part-Time Monster this week talking about the Kitsune, one of Japan’s most beautiful and alluring female monsters. Easily equated with the mermaid brides of Europe, Kitsune Onna is not always evil, but almost always mischievous. Have a look and tell me what you think!

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    1. Yes, she’s one of the most interesting and widely-renowned beauties of mythology. I sort of equate her with mermaid or nymph brides in Europe. Thanks, Kerry!

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