Pranks & Shapeshifters: Kitsune in Japanese Folklore

Since ancient times there has been a belief in Japan that foxes have spiritual powers and are capable of bewitching people. They were also seen as messengers in service of Inari, the god of rice (JapanKnowledge 2018). Due to their varied characteristics - both good and bad - kitsune are admired, revered and feared (Foster 2015, 178).

Photo of Inari fox statues (kitsune)
Images of kitsune at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

Many old tales about kitsune originated from China, where the fox was known as a shapeshifter (Foster 2015, 178). The concept of a fox disguising itself as a woman and marrying a man is popular in Japanese folklore (JapanKnowledge 2018). Often the fox does this out of gratitude after having been helped by that man in some way; an example of this is Kuzunoha, the mother of Abe no Seimei – a famous onmyoji (a sort of government wizard) from the Heian period (794-1185) – who is said to have been a fox married to Seimei's father Abe no Yasuna because he had rescued her from captivity (Miller 2008, 32).

kitsune-tsuki and kitsune-tsukai

Kitsune-tsuki, referring to a human being possessed by a fox, often occurred when a fox wanted to pass on a message from the "other world" of when a fox simply wished to torment a person (Foster 2015, 182). In many cases the fox was driven away via exorcism (Foster 2015, 182).

However, the fox wasn't always the one controlling the human; sometimes it happened the other way around. Kitsune-tsukai or kitsune-mochi are people with power over a fox, something that was said to be inheritable (Foster 2015, 184). Especially wealthy families were thought to use foxes to get rid of their enemies and acquire their wealth, which cast a negative light on such families (Foster 2015, 184).


kitsune is a red fox with a maximum of nine tails and in its later years its fur can turn gold and eventually white ( n.d.). A pure white fox was seen as a good Inari fox (Tofugu 2014). The notion that a fox's strength increases along with its tails is most likely a modern addition (Tofugu 2014).

Print of a fox lady (kitsune) designed by Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770)
Fox Woman Looking through a Round Window at Her True Face Reflected in Water

A fox disguised as a human can stay hidden for years, but there are ways to recognize it. A fox's tail is difficult to hide – especially for young and inexperienced foxes – and is visible in the fox's reflection in mirrors or water (Tofugu 2014). Likewise its shadow reveals its true form when it falls on the water. If you can't see any of these things, a good indicator would be the fact that foxes can't say complete words properly (Tofugu 2014).

If you want to protect yourself against foxes, be sure to keep a dog close. Foxes are afraid of dogs because their illusions don't work on them and some foxes even fail to maintain their human shape when startled by a dog's bark (Tofugu 2014).

Hopefully this article was interesting to you! For more information about kitsune check out Kitsune: The Divine/Evil Fox Yokai on the Tofugu website. I've also written a paper in 2020 about the fox in Japanese folklore: The Japanese Fox: sustaining or subverting the negative view of women?


1. “Foxes”, Encyclopedia of Japan, JapanKnowledge,, (accessed Nov. 27,2018).

2. Foster, Michael Dylan. 2015. The Book of Yōkai: mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. California: University of California Press.

3. Miller, Laura. 2008. “The Extreme Makeover for a Heian-Era Wizard.”
Mechademia 3: 30–45.

4. n.d. “Kitsune – Intelligent Fox in Japanese Folklore.” Accessed November 27, 2018. 

5. Tofugu. 2014. “Kitsune: The Divine/Evil Fox Yokai.” Accessed November 27, 2018. 

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