Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1797–1861)
Foxes Being Trained in Disguise
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1840s
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1959

Foxes (kitsune) are commonly described in Japanese folk tales as supernatural creatures associated with Inari, the Shinto deity of rice. Foxes were well known for their ability to assume human form and impersonate specific individuals, and many Nō and Kabuki theater scripts describe kitsune that assume the guise of beautiful women to seduce unsuspecting men. When such couples marry, kitsune are portrayed as devoted wives and caring mothers, but when the husband discovers his wife’s vulpine identity, she typically is forced to flee. Less monogamous kitsune are described as malicious tricksters who prey upon men, disorient them through hypnosis and illusions, and drain them of their vitality through sex.

Foxes are also notorious for possessing the souls of young women. Symptoms of spiritual possession by a fox (kitsunetsuki) included frothing at the mouth, running naked down the street, barking, and craving foods made with deep-fried tofu, Inari's favorite food. Author Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) noted that kitsunetsuki typically was treated through exorcism by a Shinto priest, but “when such gentle measures failed or a priest was not available, victims… were beaten or badly burned in hopes of forcing the fox to leave.” (Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, 1894)

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