The following is a conversation with SS that details her interpretation of the legend of the fox in Japanese culture.
SS: So, in Japan the fox is called ‘Kitsune,’ and in a lot of stories and literature and folklore, the fox is, like, a bad omen. In a lot of narratives, if characters are traveling and come across a fox, they’ll turn back or go a different direction. They’re also known to shapeshifters, so they can turn into humans. There’s actually one story about these two men who are travelling, and one is always suspicious of the people they come across on the road, thinking that they’re all foxes out to get them, that they, like, are just foxes transformed into humans. So, it’s almost like a supernatural creature, especially in the Early-Modern period of Japan.
EK: What do you make of this legend of the fox, then, as you grew up in Japan?
SS: Foxes were one of those things that were worshipped on everyday level, not really in religion, but more of just like a folk practice, to bring things like successful business and so on. You can see little local shrines or like little houses with tiny fox figures in them, so I think it’s all over the place, this belief in foxes. I think it reflects the, kind of, way that foxes can be sneaky, you know like ‘sly as a fox,’ sort of thing.
In my experience with literature and different cultures, foxes seem to be a mischievous character, especially in Japanese folklore. They can either be a friend or foe, depending on how you treat them/the circumstances that you run into them. They tend to be trickster characters. Like SS said, we even have the saying “sly as a fox.” How the Japanese look at the fox during travel reminds me of how the Irish look at black cats as a bad omen before travel.
I’ve never heard of the fox being able to shapeshift into human form nor being worshipped like they are in Japan, though. It seems like Japanese culture sees a power in the fox that other cultures don’t. They view the creature as something that could either give them a gift of wisdom or trick them in some way, therefore they pay their respects to the animal through worship so as to make sure they aren’t tricked.