Japanese folklore is rich in stories of creatures, real and mythical, that come to life in tattoo designs. While dragons, tigers, and koi fish are some of the most popular choices for symbolism, none can match the mysterious aura of the fox. Depicting a Japanese fox in a tattoo can be quite tricky as one needs to be aware of its various interpretations. ‘Kitsune’, as they are known in Japan, are one of the most curious animals and perhaps more than any other, they have also fascinated people outside the country. Their dual nature switches between a cunning trickster and one possessing good fortune and wisdom. According to folklore, they can be a dangerous shape-shifter that can possess people, but they are also associated with Inari worship, acting as servants to the Gods of fertility and agriculture, with stone statues of kitsune can be seen at Shinto shrines throughout Japan.
In Western culture werewolves are humans who become a wolf, however in Japan opposite transformation happens. ‘Kitsune’ are creatures of the night with supernatural powers. Many early Japanese stories tell of legends of them taking on the form of beautiful, seductive women or the form of monks. However, their true appearance is often reflected on a paper screen behind them in a silhouette with a long tail or pointy ears, to the horror of those that notice.
A kitsune needs to cover its head with leaves and reeds to transform. In Japanese art, foxes are often depicted on their hind legs with the top of their head covered, hinting at this supernatural ability. Other abilities include creation of illusions, manifestations in dreams and mind control, taking on the form of inanimate objects, and seeing the future.
The supernatural powers of a fox increase with age. It is said that when a fox reaches the age of one hundred it grows another tail and receives the power to transform into a human form. When they reach the age of one thousand, they grow nine tails and gain infinite wisdom, these are known as ‘kyubi no kitsune’ (nine-tailed foxes).
While often mischievous, foxes have a positive interpretation: if a human helps a fox, it will try to repay any favour and will always keep its promise.
A famous legend is that of Yasuna, noble samurai, who was due to be married. Unfortunately, his fiancée passed away in an accident, and his father-in-law to be offered his other daughter. One day on his way home Yasuna saw a group of men chasing after a fox. He quickly hid the creature under his robes until the danger had passed and released it to safety. Some days later a beautiful lady appeared and introduced herself as Kuzunoha. The two immediately fell in love and she looked after him. The two had a child together. Some time passed and the father of his deceased wife-to-be found it strange that he had not heard back in regard to his offer and went to visit Yasuna only to find Kuzunoha. When he confronted her, she admitted that she was in fact the fox that Yasuna saved and had returned to thank him by looking after him. With her secret revealed and knowing this was not her place, she sadly returned to the woods. Their son, Abe no Seimei, grew up to become the most renown fortune-teller in Japan’s history.
However, a fox’s trickster nature can also win out, a classic example is the well-known story of Tamamo no Mae, a dutiful nine tailed fox who took the form of a courtesan, used her supernatural abilities to possess an emperor in the 12th century driving him to illness, and was only driven off thanks to the efforts of a great warrior.
The fox is an ambivalent animal and with its duality of interpretation of good and bad that makes the imagery of the fox tattoo complex, enshrouded in wit and mystery.
Originally published in Tattoo Life November/December 2020.