Japanese Folklore – Yōkai: The Kitsune and the Tanuki

Shapeshifting magical animals are a staple of folklore of cultures around the world, and Japan is no different. As two of the most iconic and well-known yōkai, the kitsune and the tanuki hold an important place in Japanese culture, and today we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at these two mystical masters of mischief.


The Kitsune

From the tales of Native America, Western Europe, and all the way to East Asia, foxes have developed a reputation as sly tricksters, as mischievous as they are mysterious. In Japan, it is believed that the tail of a kitsune (キツネ; Eng: fox) splits with time, and the number of tails it has indicates its age, wisdom, and power. A kitsune can have as many as nine tails (known as the kyūbi no kitsune, 九尾の狐; Eng: nine-tailed fox), with a new tail splitting off every 100 years. Japanese folklore does not traditionally distinguish between normal and paranormal foxes, as normal foxes are simply young and immature kitsune which have yet to fully awaken their supernatural abilities. These include possession of humans, creating illusions, knowledge of many things, breathing spectral fire, and most notable of all, shapeshifting.

The Japanese red fox.


Popular portrayals of kitsune both classical and modern often depict them changing their shape for various purposes, usually to trick people. The shapes they take can vary, though more often than not it’s the guise of a beautiful young woman. In fact, in many a story female kitsune marry unwitting human men and become loving wives and devoted mothers, and children born of these pairings are reputed to have powerful divination abilities themselves. If a kitsune is startled, inebriated, or caught unawares, some foxy features (such as a tail or fangs) may appear, and spotting these is how one could spot a kitsune in disguise. And while they love playing pranks, kitsune are not necessarily evil, as each individual kitsune has its own disposition and can be anything between benevolent and nefarious. One significant tradition maintains that some kitsune are under the employ of Inari, the god of agriculture and land fertility in the Shinto faith, and shrines dedicated to Inari (such as the famous Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto) often feature fox imagery. These kitsune are pure white, and act as both Inari’s messengers and spiritual guardians for local people. Other kitsune can have more wicked intentions, playing cruel tricks on poor farmers or monks or even possessing them and making them behave in abnormal ways.

Traditional Japanese prints featuring the mystical kitsune, from left to right: Fox Fires at Ōji by Hirokage Utagawa, Musashi Plain Moon by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Lady Kayo Transforms into a Fox by Kuniyoshi Utagawa. More can be found at Japanese Gallery Kensington.


As one might expect, kitsune often play a very important role in anime and manga. For example, Yu Yu Hakusho gave us the powerful Kurama as one of the main characters, a mystical fox demon said to be over 1000 years old. This, in turn, inspired Kurama, a mystical fox beast that possessed a young ninja with foxlike features and a penchant for pranks named Naruto Uzumaki. You may have heard of him. There’s also the orphan Shippou, a young shapeshifting fox yōkai and one of the main characters from InuYasha. Kitsune aren’t always one of the good guys, though: Kuyou, for example, is the first major antagonist of Rosario + Vampire, and both Hakumen no Mono from Ushio and Tora and Hagoromo-Gitsune from Nura: Rise of the Yōkai Clan are some of the biggest villains in their respective series, all of whom have the powers and characteristics of the kitsune. There’s also no shortage of female characters that are metaphorically described as kitsune either, such as the prankster Konno Mitsune in Love Hina or the beautiful Takani Megumi in Rurouni Kenshin. Additionally, there are many kitsune representatives in other Japanese multimedia franchises, including Vulpix and Ninetales in Pokémon and Renamon and Kyubimon in Digimon.

The historical Kawakami Gensai, inspiration behind Himura Kenshin, also known as Battousai the Manslayer. Gensai was often mistaken for a woman due to his soft features.


The Ishin Shishi weren’t the only people fighting to depose the shogunate. There was also the Sekihōtai (赤報隊, Eng: 'red vanguard'), a small civilian army comprised primarily of farmers and merchants. The Meiji regime had promised tax cuts in order to win support from the people in the conflict, and the Sekihōtai travelled the countryside to spread the news. When the conflict ended and the Meiji government found they could not keep their promises, they used the Sekihōtai as a scapegoat and called them a false army who had spread lies, and subsequently captured and executed members of this civilian army. This included the famous captain Sagara Sōzō, who you may recognise as the adoptive father of one Sagara Sanosuke in Rurouni Kenshin (quick note: in the Japanese naming order, the family name comes first, so ‘Sagara’ is the family name here). No wonder Sanosuke hates the Meiji government with a burning passion!


The Pro-Shogunate Forces

Meanwhile, on the side of the shogunate were the Shinsengumi (新選組, Eng: 'New Selected Group'), a group of samurai appointed to act as a special police force whose primary role was to police the city of Kyoto – at the time the capital of Japan – and putting down any acts of insurgency against the shogunate. Despite technically being defenders of the peace, they soon accumulated a reputation of dread as they had a very strict code of conduct and a willingness to kill anyone they perceived as a threat. The Shinsengumi are divided into various divisions, with each division having their own captain. They are also well-known for their distinctive sky blue-and-white haori jacket uniforms. These uniforms were worn by various Rurouni Kenshin characters in flashbacks to the Bakumatsu, most notably by Kenshin’s aloof ally Saitō Hajime. As in the series, the real Hajime was the captain of the 3rd division of the Shinsengumi who survived the Bakumatsu and became a police officer under the name Fujita Gorō. The series was also historically-accurate in portraying Hajime as a cold, dispassionate man of few words and great talent with the sword. And do you remember that little joke Kenshin and Misao made about Hajime’s wife (season 2, episode 10)? The one where they wondered if his wife had the patience of Buddha to handle such a difficult man? That’s true to history, too!

Saitō Hajime as seen in Rurouni Kenshin. Notice the Shinsengumi uniform he's wearing as his younger self, which contrasts with his low-profile modern clothes.


By far the most famous act of the Shinsengumi was capturing a group of the Shishi in the Ikedaya Inn in Kyoto, who were plotting to set fire to the city in their attempt to bring down the shogunate. This incident later became known as the Ikedaya Incident or the Ikedaya Affair, and it is this exact scheme that in Rurouni Kenshin inspired Shishio Makoto’s own Kyoto Inferno plan as part of his attempts to bring down the Meiji government. The success of the Shinsengumi in foiling this plot quickly bolstered their popularity, with many people enlisting as members.


Meanwhile, all the way in Edo Castle there was another group devoted to protecting the shogunate: the Oniwaban (御庭番), a group of spies or undercover agents who reported any important information to the shōgun. Often depicted as ninja in modern Japanese media, they were also responsible for securing the castle in order to keep the shōgun safe from any assassination attempts. In Rurouni Kenshin we first meet a few members of the Oniwaban during the Kanryu Mansion arc, along with their prodigious leader Shinomori Aoshi. We then see the other members of the Oniwaban running the Aoiya Inn in Kyoto, under the direction of their previous leader Okina. These members are portrayed as ninjas, and living up to the reputation of the historical Oniwaban they are shown as having a large and effective information network. Amusingly, through an odd twist of fate they provided invaluable help to Kenshin, a former assassin who fought to depose the shōgun only ten years prior.

The Oniwaban as seen in Rurouni Kenshin. Notice the ninja garb they are wearing, a common depiction of the Oniwaban in modern Japanese media.


These are some of the more notable historical elements of Rurouni Kenshin. The series is so accurate to the early Meiji history of Japan (minus all the physics-defying fight scenes, of course) that it would be quicker to list the inaccuracies instead. There are many other historical events strewn throughout the series that forms the background of numerous characters and events, such as the assassination of nationalist leader Ōkubo Toshimichi or the purge of Buddhist temples that inspired Anji’s character. Suffice it to say, Rurouni Kenshin is an important work for the education of Japanese history, in addition to just being a well-written story with beloved characters and timeless themes.

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