6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (2024)

byDavid McElhinney | ART

Japanese folklore and religious mythology is rife with anthropomorphic and deified creatures, from the huge-testicl*d tanuki (raccoon dogs) to the three-legged crow which remains a symbol of the nation.

The kitsune (fox) recurs throughout stories in Japanese history, usually appearing as an intelligent and/or cunning being with paranormal abilities and often residing at Shinto shrines. They’re portrayed as having a deep connection with their human companions and as manifestations of a major kami (Shinto spirt) in the Japanese story of creation.

But this only hints at the enduring importance of the kitsune in Japan. So, if you want to find out more, read on for everything you need to know about kitsune in Japanese culture.

1. Why are Kitsune Foxes Popular in Japanese culture?

6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (2)

Kitsune have been a part of Japanese religious culture for as long as the culture has existed in any meaningful sense. Long before Japan came under imperial rule, it was populated by nomadic tribes whose spirit worlds were fueled by deeply held polytheistic animist beliefs. (It wasn’t until the arrival of Chinese Buddhists and Confucians in the 6th century AD that these beliefs would be collectively termed Shintoism.)

To these nomads, the entire natural world, both animate and inanimate, alive or dead, was imbued with spirits. And the fox, a creature native to the archipelago and in abundance in prehistoric Japan’s dense forests, slowly began to take on a mystical significance.

By at least the 8th century, and likely even earlier, shrines were dedicated to kitsune, or more precisely, the fox incarnations of the Shinto kami, Inari – the goddess of rice, harvests, agriculture, fertility and more. Inari was said to have arrived in Japan during its creation riding on the back of a white fox. A harsh famine had struck the land, ushering the goddess from her heavenly abode into the land of mankind carrying grains to liberate the starving people from their hunger.

In 711 AD, the first Inari shrine was erected on the eponymous Inari Mountain in Kyoto to solidify the significance of the myth. Kitsune would operate as the guardian protectors of the shrine, and their physical presence throughout the nation would forever be a reminder of the benevolent goddess’s deeds.

2. What do Kitsune Represent?

6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (3)

The concept of god is pretty flexible in Japan, and so too are the representations of the kitsune. In their Inari form, kitsune symbolize good harvests, tea and sake, fertility and prosperity, cunning and smarts, business and money, all in equal measures and all at different turns.

The Shinto pantheon is believed to be infinite, but Inari is certainly one of the most important spirits, thus making kitsune among the most important of creatures. The most common depiction of foxes is at Inari shrines, 32,000 of which exist across Japan, making up over 30% of the total number of shrines of any kind.

A pair of stone kitsune usually appear at Inari shrine gates or in the form of sculptures within shrine complexes. They are there to protect both the spirit world and the worshippers within. As such, visitors will leave votive offerings to the foxes, often in the form of tofu (supposedly their favorite food).

This stunning image is from photographer Nandin Yuan. You can check out his work at Studio Bridge.

3. What are Some Common Manifestations of the Kitsune in Japanese Folklore?

There are said to be 13 different types of mythical kitsune, each corresponding to an “element”: Celestial, Darkness, Wind, Spirit, Fire, Earth, River, Ocean, Mountain, Forest, Thunder, Time and Sound. But more commonly, they are divided into two diametrically opposed camps: nogitsune (bad) and zenko (good), representing the duality and balance of life on earth.

Whether a given kitsune augurs good or ill, however, depends on the circ*mstance on which it’s encountered. In yokai (ghost story) folklore, kitsune evolve greater abilities as they age. Natural shapeshifters, they are believed to be able to take human form after they have reached their hundredth year.

Evil foxes, known as nogitsune, are wild creatures that serve no god and carry no divinity within their souls. They are known for shifting into human form, and in some cases presenting themselves as beautiful women to lure powerful men into their traps. They are also guilty of kitsunetsuki, possessing the spirts of young girls, to feed on their life force as well as for their own sad*stic amusem*nt.

Benevolent kitsune, also called zenko, are the messengers and reincarnations of souls in the spirit world, often growing new tails as they become more powerful. Once they reach a total of nine their fur turns white or gold and they begin to acquire powerful abilities beyond comprehension, including the bending of time and space. Nine-tailed kitsune are said to have heightened perceptions, can hear and see all that happens in the world, and eventually attain omniscience.

4. What are some Famous Kitsune in Literature?

6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (4)

One of the most famous examples of kitsune in pop culture is through the Pokémon Vulpix (a fire kitsune) and its evolved form, Ninetails. In later editions of the game, Alolan Vulpix (an ice kitsune) and its subsequent evolution Alolan Ninetails would also be introduced. Particularly in their evolved forms, these Pokémon gained mysterious powers, staying true to the mythological source material.

Kitsune are also heavily represented in campfire stories, such as The Grateful Foxes, The Fox and the Tanuki (later adapted into a manga series), the Foxes’ Wedding and How Tokutaro Was Deluded by Foxes, all of which have been told for generations. In Christopher Kincaid’s introductory primer Come and Sleep, the author details the rich history of this tradition with authority and wit.

5. What are some Famous Kitsune in Art?

Kitsune were often depicted on inro, intricate hardcase pouches hung from the belt of a pocketless kimono. The above inro dates back to the Edo era, evidencing the rich tradition of kitsune in Japanese iconography. The depicted kitsune are 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.

Kitsune were frequently represented in paintings and ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The artist Kansetsu Hashimoto was renowned for his elegant paintings of Japanese wildlife. In Hashimoto’s calming nihonga-style Inari fox painting, he focuses less on the kistune’s religious significance, rather celebrating it for its elegant natural form.

6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (6)

Tsukioka Yosh*toshi (1839 -1892), one of the last great ukiyo-e masters, also celebrated the fox in his works. In his 100 Aspects of the Moon series he portrays a kitsune creeping through moonlit fields garbed in women’s clothing, hinting at foxes’ more mischievous incarnations.

6. Where Can You See Kitsune in Japan?

Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most famous shrines in the nation, famed for its procession of red torii gates snaking through hillsides. But it’s also the birthplace of fox shrines in Japan, and in commemoration of this, stone kitsune are peppered throughout the complex, guarding gates and watching over worshippers.

At Toyokawa Inari Shrine in Aichi Prefecture, Shinto and Buddhist symbolism exist in harmony. There are also thousands of miniature stone foxes congregated in the grounds. Many of the foxes wear red bibs as a sign of their divinity or hold scrolls in their mouth symbolizing their roles as messengers of the gods.

6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (7)

Takayama Inari Shrine in Aomori Prefecture is a smaller and considerably less crowded version of its Kyoto counterpart, Fushimi Inari Taisha. A procession of grand stone foxes marks the trail to the torii gates.

If you want to see kitsune in the flesh, head to Zao Fox Village in Miyagi Prefecture. Over 100 foxes, and several different species, roam the reserve, which visitors can enter. A shrine is located in the village as are platforms from which you can buy food to feed the foxes, while in spring there are also opportunities to hold newborn baby foxes.

February 5, 2022 |Art,Craft, Prints, Painting, Photography

JO SELECTSoffers helpful suggestions, and genuine recommendations for high-quality, authentic Japanese art & design. We know how difficult it is to search for Japanese artists, artisans and designers on the vast internet, so we came up with this lifestyle guide to highlight the most inspiring Japanese artworks and designs for your everyday needs.

All product suggestions are independently selected and individually reviewed. We try our best to update information, but all prices and availability are subject to change. Japan Objects is a member of the Amazon affiliates program and if you buy something through our links, Japan Objects may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.




Itchiku Kubota Kimono Art: A Japanese Museum Experience Like No Other

ART | October 6, 2023

75 Best Japanese Authors of All Time

ART | September 15, 2023

65 Best Japanese Books of All Time

ART | June 2, 2023

35 Most Famous Japanese Artists You Should Know

ART | March 31, 2023

Best Japanese Movies: The Top 60 of All Time

ART | October 7, 2022

20 Must-See Masterpieces of Japanese Landscape Painting

ART | September 9, 2022



Choosing the Best Japanese Futon: 20 Things to Know

CRAFT | August 25, 2023

75 Helpful Japanese Beauty Products For Every Skin Type

LIFESTYLE | July 28, 2023

What is Bizen Ware? 7 Things to Know About Wabi-Sabi Pottery

CRAFT | December 9, 2022

Best Japanese Movies: The Top 60 of All Time

ART | October 7, 2022

Gion Kyoto: 20 Must-See Highlights of the Geisha District

TRAVEL | May 21, 2021

What is Wabi Sabi? The Elusive Beauty of Imperfection

LIFESTYLE | January 8, 2021

6 Things You Should Know About the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore (2024)


What are the facts about Inari's foxes? ›

Inari's foxes, or kitsune, are pure white and act as their messengers. According to myth, Inari, as a goddess, was said to have come to Japan at the time of its creation amidst a harsh famine that struck the land.

What is the Japanese folklore about fox? ›

kitsune, trickster foxes from traditional Japanese folklore. They are a type of yōkai, a class of supernatural creatures with godlike powers, often equated to the English ghoul or demon.

What does the fox statue in Inari mean? ›

The fox, symbolizing both benevolence and malevolence, is sometimes identified with the messenger of Inari, and statues of foxes are found in great numbers both inside and outside shrines dedicated to the rice god.

What is the significance of the fox at Fushimi Inari? ›

▲Foxes are the messenger animal of the god Inari. These foxes, which guards the front of the Main Hall and the Inner Worship Hall hold a rice ear in their mouth to symbolize the fact that Inari is the god of rice and crops.

Is Inari male or female? ›

Inari has been depicted only as a male, as they are asexual creatures. The most popular representations of Inari, according to scholar Karen Ann Smyers, are an old man carrying rice, a young female food goddess, and an androgynous boddhisatva.

What are the powers of Inari? ›

Other important mythological figures found in association with Inari include the wizard Abe no Seimei, who is descended from the kitsune, and the Buddhist spirit Dakiniten. The powers used by Inari include strength, power, speed, longevity, and the ability to change between human and fox forms.

What does Inari mean in Japanese? ›

Name of Deity

“Inari” is short for “Ine nari” or “Ine ni naru” (reaping of rice). It is a word from ancient Japanese in which rice, the main food sustaining Japanese people's lives, symbolizes the miracles of heaven and earth.

What is the history of Inari? ›

The Fushimi Inari shrine was founded in 711 CE by the Hata clan and moved from its original location on the top of Mt. Inari to its present location lower down in the 9th century CE. Like several other Shinto shrines, it was administered by Buddhist monks until the formal separation of the two religions in 1873 CE.

What is Inari the goddess of? ›

Overview. Inari is the Japanese kami (a type of god or spirit in the Shinto religion) of prosperity, tea, agriculture (especially rice), industry, and smithing. A complex deity with many faces, Inari is variously referred to as male, female, and androgynous, depending on the context.

What color are Inari's foxes? ›

Usually depicted in white, Inari foxes are often seen with a ball of flames or a key that indicates their supernatural potency. A particularly popular god among the commoners of Edo (today's Tokyo), Inari is honored with small shrines in many neighborhoods of the city.

What type of kitsune is Inari? ›

There are two common classifications of kitsune: The zenko (善狐, lit. 'good foxes') are benevolent, celestial foxes associated with Inari; they are sometimes simply called Inari foxes in English. On the other hand, the yako (野狐, lit.

What does Inari wear? ›

#1 of five details. The fox statues, usually a male and a female, represent the messengers of the spirit or Kami of the Inari deity. They wear a votive (offered, given, dedicated, etc., in accordance with a vow: a votive offering.) red bib and hold a scroll or a key in their mouth.

What do Inari foxes eat? ›

Over time, the shrines focused on the servant of that god, who happened to be a fox. Foxes are said to love deepfried tofu, and from this came the custom of calling tofu skins inari.

What do Inari foxes have in their mouths? ›

Inari and Foxes

Along with their red torii, Inari shrines are distinguishable by their stone figures of foxes. These guardians are often depicted with a round jewel (hōju), storehouse key, or stalk of rice in their mouths, items that are considered auspicious symbols.

Where do Inari foxes live? ›

The main Inari shrine is the Fushimi Inari-taisha in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, where the path to the shrine is marked by around a thousand torii. Inari shrines typically possess guardian figures in the form of foxes or kitsune. These guardian figures are messengers of Inari but are commonly thought of as the deity itself.

What are the facts about Ryukyu flying foxes? ›

Ryukyu flying foxes are nocturnal creaturs and feed at night. Sometimes, however, during the day they can be found feeding on cherry blossoms. Normally, during the day they roost, singly or in small groups hiding high up in trees. They may even roost in large camps and may also change their roosting sites.

What is a fact about Tibetan fox? ›

Tibetan foxes are mostly solitary, daytime hunters as their main prey, pikas, are diurnal. Tibetan foxes may form commensal relationships with brown bears during hunts for pikas. The bears dig out the pikas, and the foxes grab them when they escape the bears. Mated pairs remain together and may also hunt together.

What are some facts about 9 tailed fox? ›

The kitsune have many tails.

After reaching 1,000 years of age and gaining its ninth tail, a kitsune turns a white or golden color, becoming a tenko (“celestial fox”), the most powerful form of the kitsune, and then ascends to the heavens.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Sen. Ignacio Ratke

Last Updated:

Views: 6481

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (56 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Sen. Ignacio Ratke

Birthday: 1999-05-27

Address: Apt. 171 8116 Bailey Via, Roberthaven, GA 58289

Phone: +2585395768220

Job: Lead Liaison

Hobby: Lockpicking, LARPing, Lego building, Lapidary, Macrame, Book restoration, Bodybuilding

Introduction: My name is Sen. Ignacio Ratke, I am a adventurous, zealous, outstanding, agreeable, precious, excited, gifted person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.