6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore
by Anna Jamieson | ART
Common in Japanese folklore, if you’ve been to Japan, chances are you’ll have seen representations of foxes or kitsune. The most well known example is perhaps the striking statues guarding the many Inari shrines. Throughout the world, foxes have reputations for many different things; but in Japan, they have important mythical status, oscillating between a symbol of cunning, and a powerful possessor of great intelligence and good fortune. In mythic culture, both of these symbols had the ability to shape shift into human form. In part due to the close relationship between foxes and humans, they are often portrayed as faithful friends, lovers or loyal companions.
With this in mind, we’ve curated an mini exhibition of six of the most wonderful Kitsune manifestations, including an ukiyo-e print, an nihonga painting, an netsuke and an inro. So read on to learn more about the mysterious kitsune and their place within Japanese art — and let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
1. Inari Fox
If you’ve ever visited a Shinto shrine, you will probably have come across this sight. These types of foxes are portrayed as celestial creatures, associated with the Shinto deity Inari, and known as zenko, or good foxes. Shrine visitors leave offerings for the kitsune, who are often viewed as Inari’s messengers. At other times the deity itself is portrayed a kitsune.
2. The Fox’s Wedding
An inro is a hardcase pouch that was hung from the belt of a pocketless kimono. They were often elaborately decorated. On this piece, we see a cluster of kitsune in semi-human form, celebrating a wedding. Wearing human clothes, they still resemble foxes, referencing both their magical ability to shape shift, and their closeness to humans.
This inro dates back to the Edo era, evidencing the rich tradition of kitsune within artistic iconography. The kitsune are again linked to the shrine in the background. Note the fox whose tail is being revealed; the kitsune’s tail had real symbolic significance, and often foxes had difficulty hiding these when in human form. They were sometimes shown as having more than one tail — the more they had, the older and wiser they were.
The fox isn't the only animal the crops up a lot in Japanese art. Check out these 10 Great Cat Paintings!
3. The Crafty Fox
This early nineteenth-century netsuke (a traditional Japanese ornament carved from wood, often used to suspend items from the sash of a kimono), shows the kitsune in a sculptural form, and alluding to the more mysterious and sly connotations that foxes often embody in Western culture. Concealed in layers of drapery, these items show how the kitsune also were used as icons within material culture, as well as two dimensional pieces.
4. The Folklore of the Japanese Fox
Want to learn more about the wonderful mythic capacity of the Japanese Fox? We recommend Christopher Kincaid’s Come and Sleep: The Folklore of the Japanese Fox which brilliantly highlights the paradoxical nature of these twin functions of the fox, focusing on fairy tales and images of the enigmatic kitsune. You can get your copy at Amazon.
5. Kitsune in Painting
This beautiful image of a white fox combines iconography of fresh flowers and foliage, creating a sense of a balmy, humid evening, as the painting is bathed in a hazy mist. Its creator, Kanetsu Hashimoto, was well known for his elegant paintings of Japanese wildlife. In Hashimoto’s calming nihonga-style painting, the kitsune loses some of its religious symbolism, and rather is celebrated for its animal form.
If you're not familar with nihonga art, you should defintely take a look at our Concise Guide to get to know some of this incredible art.
6. Kitsune in Print
Here, the fox shifts to yet another shape; the fox demon. As the kitsune tumbles across the top of the painting, we get a real sense of the multifarious shapes, and the subsequent opportunities for all the various artistic representations that these icons allowed. The soaring creature evokes a darker, more mysterious understanding of the kitsune, as a figure that could haunt dreams and provoke fear in the viewer.
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