It’s January – the days are short and dark and the nights are long and cold. It’s a perfect time of year for sitting around the fire, lighting candles and storytelling!
We’ve been enchanted by a traditional Japanese folktale from the Kyoto Heian era about a woman called Kuzunoha who is secretly a white fox. We’ve seen enchanting metamorphoses in Japanese stories before – we love The Chrysanthemum Spirit where the noble lady pines for the chrysanthemums in the palace garden so much that a nobleman appears who is the actual spirit of the flower.
Come with us as we take a closer look at Kuzunoha, to discover a little bit more about Japanese storytelling traditions, and also take a look at the symbolism of the fox in Japan.
A Folktale Tradition
In Japan, the folktale tradition originated as setsuwa (spoken story). In the Heian era folktale began to emerge accompanied by a host of myths, legends, supernatural, and divine stories, all of which have filtered down to today as an influence on current fiction, manga and anime. We’ve already discovered the supernatural folktale-influenced work of Mizuki Shigeru in our blog about manga, and the tales of kappa water spirits and house spirits called zashiki warashi in northern Iwate Prefecture in our blog about asadora Dondo Hare.
From Princess Kaguya, Ghibli Studios
‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’ (taketori monogatari), which was the inspiration for the beautifully sketched animation by Isao Takahata (Ghibli Studios) Princess Kaguya, is believed to be the oldest folktale, dating back to 909AD, and, in combination with other profound influences such as the poetic Tales of Ise, is regarded as a ‘parent’ of The Tale of Genji, and is even mentioned in the story.
Masao Ebina: the Lady Rokujou’s spirit wafts through the room as Genji moves to protect Yugao
I’m interested in Japanese folk tales and how their influence is felt in the 11th century Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu was certainly influenced by the prevailing superstitions and folktales of her time. Her vengeful character the Lady Rokujou bears a jealousy for Genji’s other lovers so powerful that her spirit (ikiryō) is able to leave her body without her realising. In the dramatic ukiyoe above, we can see her presence by the standing curtains which are moving and the candle that is snuffed out. Genji moves to protect his lover Yugao from the angry spirit – his sword is prominent in the illustration.
In the story, Genji dreams that Lady Rokujou is by his pillow as he lies sleeping with Yugao. He then wakes up, aware of a menacing presence and with the lamp extinguished. He has his men check the house, and he returns to Yugao. Genji says, ‘In empty houses, foxes and whatnot shock people by giving them a good fright, yes, that is it.’ But Yugao is limp as he tries to raise her, ‘..and he saw, helplessly childlike as she was, a spirit had taken her.’
Many folktales are recorded in the Heian Konjaku Monogatari Shū. These stories had two purposes: religious and secular. This narrative tradition enabled Buddhist priests to instruct people in a simple yet meaningful way. The stories demonstrate in an easy-to-understand format how faith may be rewarded and sin immediately punished. The stories are an enjoyable read: folktales often borrowed and adapted from continental China and as far away as India.
The story of Kuzunoha is so popular in Japan it is retold in kabuki.
Kuzunoha’s name means ‘kudzu leaf’, and I believe you can see the leaves in this woodblock print. She is a white fox or kitsune, and you can see her head and paw appearing as a shadow on the shoji screen near to her little boy. This is the pivotal moment of her story – let me tell you more about her.
In the middle of the tenth century there was a man called Abe no Yasuna, an onmyōji or astrologer, who lived in Izumi near Osaka and sought to rebuild his family house. He came from a once-wealthy family, but their land had been stolen from them years before. Yasuna regularly travelled to the Inari Shrine in Shinoda, to pray for the blessings of the kami for the fortune of his family to be restored.
Yasuna and their little boy discover that Kuzunoha is a white fox in this ukiyoe by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
One day, as he walked through the woods of Shinoda, he found a beautiful white fox that had been wounded by a hunter, and it asked Yasuna to save it. Yasuna knew that white foxes were holy to Inari, and so he helped the animal to escape. The hunter was furious and he fought with Yasuna, injuring him badly.
Later, when Yasuna was recovering at home, a young woman came out of the forest to his bedside to look after him until he was well again. She told him her name was Kuzunoha. Kuzunoha and Yasuna began to fall in love, and ultimately they had a baby son and were very happy.
One autumn day in their 6th year together, Kuzunoha was watching the chrysanthemums in their garden and breathing in their scent. She was so caught up in the moment that she forgot to hide her white tail.
The shadow of the screen in the ukiyoe below is an indication of her true form, and suggests that she isn’t human at all. This symbolism goes back to the time of the story – in the Heian era it was believed that reflections in water and mirrors, as well as shadows, revealed the true form of supernatural beings who were pretending to be human.
Kuzunoha by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Now her true identity had been discovered, Kuzunoha knew that she would have to leave her beloved family behind.
She wrote a poem for her husband and her son and they later found it attached to a sliding screen:
If you think of me, love, come seek me in the forests of Shinoda, and you will find a kudzu leaf
When Yasuna read her poem, he realised that his beloved wife was the fox whom he had saved years earlier. He and their son travelled to the forest of Shinoda, where Kuzunoha had first entered the human world. There, Kuzunoha appeared before them for one last time. She presented them with a crystal ball and a golden box as parting gifts, and then she left her human family forever.
Kuzunoha and Yasuna’s son Abe no Senmei was a real-life historical figure, a spiritual advisor and astrologer to the Emperor believed to have inherited the supernatural yōkai powers of his mother, and the onmyōji learning of his father.
The Kuzunoha Shrine – note all of the white foxes!
The Inari Shrine in Osaka Prefecture, where Abe no Yasuna first met Kuzunoha still stands today and is known as the Kuzunoha Shrine.
The Izumi City Library notes that as well as the legend of Kuzunoha being one of the most popular in the city, ‘Between Hijiri Shrine and Shinoda no Mori Kuzunoha Inari Shrine, there is Furufu Shrine, and there is a stone that is said to be hidden in order for the white fox to escape from the hunter.’
Isn’t it interesting how history and legend blend!
Anthropomorphic Animals in Japanese Folktale
Kokei Kobayashi, ‘Scenes from the Legend of Kiyohime 2’
I’ve already mentioned the collection of Japanese Tales which date back to the Heian era of Kuzunoha, called the Konjaku Monogatari Shū. Here you will find many tales featuring anthropomorphic animals with similar traits to those demonstrated by the white fox-spirit of Kuzunoha.
One of the stories features Lady Kiyohime, and her tragic tale begins with the phrase, 今は昔, ima wa mukashi, literally, ‘now long ago..’
Kokei Kobayashi, ‘Scenes from the Legend of Lady Kiyohime 4’
Lady Kiyohime falls in love at first sight with a Buddhist monk called Anchin who is training at Dojoji Temple in Wakayama. Anchin is unable to love her in return. The ferocity of Lady Kiyohime’s pursuit means that he is driven to flee, and his fellow monks eventually hide him under the great bell of the temple.
Kokei Kobayashi, ‘Scenes from the Legend of Kiyohime 7’
The heat of Kiyohime’s passion and jealousy changes her into a demonic dragon and she coils her body around the bell, and the fire consumes both her cowering love Anchin and herself. The moral lesson in this folktale is clear for the audience to comprehend!
But there is redemption in the tale, as an elderly priest from the Dojoji Temple has a dream in which the spirit of the dead monk appears to him in the form of a dragon and appeals to him to copy a chapter on the Buddha’s life from the Lotus Sutra, and in so doing, release the spirit of Anchin and Lady Kiyohime from their suffering in the after life. The elderly priest does the spirit’s bidding and saves them.
Foxes in Japanese Folklore
Foxes and humans lived close together in ancient Japan, which gave rise to legends about them. In Japan foxes are called kitsune, and they are closely associated with Inari, which is a Shinto kami (god, or spirit).
Inari foxes are pure white, and they serve the Inari goddess as messengers.
According to the legend of ancient Japan, the Shinto goddess Inari came to Japan at the time of its creation just as a famine blighted the land. Inari descended from Heaven riding on a white fox, and in her hand she carried sheaves of rice: she was a benevolent kami arriving with aid at the point of crisis.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
The messenger foxes at Fushimi Inari, near Kyoto
There are many Inari shrines in Japan, the oldest, and perhaps the most well-known is the Fushimi Inari shrine near Kyoto, famous for the vermilion torii that ascend Inariyama.
According to ancient beliefs, foxes have such a tremendous power over evil a simple statue of a fox can repel the bad energy that according to fusui (feng shui) flows from the north east. The beautiful fox statues at Fushimi Inari serve this purpose
A contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu (who wrote The Tale of Genji) visits Fushimi Inari Shrine
Sei Shonagon writes about her journey to Fushimi Inari Shrine in The Pillow Book:
‘You have an urge to go on a pilgrimage to Inari Shrine, and as you’re laboriously gasping your way up the steep mountainside to the middle shrine, you’re filled with admiration to see others who’ve obviously started behind you go climbing straight up without the least effort; when you arrive, there they stand, already at their worship.
Once, on the day of the shrine festival in the second month, I set off for the pilgrimage at sunrise, but hurry though I might it was already mid-morning by the time I’d reached the halfway point along the mountain path.
It grew really quite hot as the morning drew on, and feeling by then thoroughly wretched, I paused for a while, tearfully wondering why on earth I had to choose such a hot day to come, when another day would have made it all so much easier.
As I sat there, I overheard a woman of forty or more, not even dressed in travelling wear but simply with her robes tucked up, remarking to someone she’d met on the path as she descended, ‘I’m performing seven pilgrimage circuits. I’ve already completed three, and it’ll be no trouble to complete the remaining four. I should be off the mountain again by early afternoon.’
It wouldn’t have struck me as anything worth noticing in another situation, but at the time how I longed to be her!’
The Fox Spirit comes into The Tale of Genji
Foxes were believed to be shape-changers in both China and Japan. As we have seen, they particularly favoured the shape of a beautiful young woman.
Ukifune with Prince Niou in the closing chapters of the Tale of Genji
In the penultimate chapter of The Tale of Genji, beautiful Ukifune is caught in a love triangle between two worthy friends: Kaoru (secret child of Genji’s second wife and courtier Kashiwagi), and the grandson of Genji, Prince Niou.
Distraught at her impossible situation, Ukifune throws herself into the wide river at Uji, and she is assumed dead by her family. But a visiting priest, who is staying overnight at an empty riverside villa instructs his monks to search the grounds with a lighted torch, to look for anything unusual.
‘They seemed to be in a wood. Peering through the eerie gloom beneath the trees, they made out some sort of white expanse and stopped short, wondering what it could be. The one with the torch lifted it high: something was there.
“It must be some shape-changed fox. The rascal! I’ll make it show itself!” He stepped forward a little.
“Look out! It’s probably nasty!” The other formed the mudra for quelling such creatures and meanwhile glared at it. He felt as though his hair would have stood on end if he had had any. The one with the torch went up to it, quite calmly, for a better look. It had long, glossy hair, and it was leaning against the great gnarled root of a tree, weeping bitterly.
“Extraordinary! We must have His Reverence look at it!” The speaker went back to his master and told him what they had found.
“I have always heard that a fox may take human form, but I have never seen one that has actually done it!” His Reverence stepped straight down from the house and went for a look.
His mother would soon be arriving, and the more able domestics were fully occupied in the kitchen and elsewhere. All was quiet in the wood as four or five monks kept watch over whatever it was. Nothing special happened. Mystified, they continued watching. Why, it will soon be dawn! We must see whether it is a human or what! Silently, they intoned the proper mantra and formed the proper mudra, but to His Reverence the answer was apparently obvious already.
“She is human,” he said. “There is nothing unusual or evil about her. Go and ask her who she is.”
We hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of Japanese folktales; the influence it had on later narratives such as the pivotal Tale of Genji, and our brief look at the symbolism of animal shape-shifters, and also the animal messengers of Inari Shrines!
Cathy and Yukki are the team behind Zusetsu, the English online store that sources contemporary textiles and gifts from Kyoto such as furoshiki gift-wrapping cloths, tenugui wall art, traditionally made washi trays, and purses made using the skills of Nishijiin-ori.
Their particular interest lies in contemporary Kyoto culture that can be traced to the peak of the Heian era when Murasaki Shikibu was writing The Tale of Genji.
Join Cathy and Yukki online for their free bookclub event at the end of January where they explore the very first chapter of this Heian masterpiece.
To tie in with their literary event, their guest blog today celebrates Heian folktale, and the legend of the woman who can shapeshift into a white fox.