Jan 26, 2012

Kitsune

One of the amazing things that a book can do is give you a glimpse of something that you desperately need to know more about. It might just be one little line or paragraph but your interest has been piqued. Plum Wine did this for me with its thread about the different fox mythologies in Japanese culture. The book is set in Vietnam Era when an American woman, Barbara, goes to teach English and Literature at a Japanese university.

I was fascinated about the superstition and mythology of foxes in Japanese culture as presented through the book. As always with fiction, I wonder where the facts end and fiction begins. But it was nice looking it all up when I was done with the book.  I found these fox stories were mostly called Kitsune myths. There are many different kind of Kitsune myths but as Lafcadio Hearn wrote in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan "All foxes have supernatural power. There are good and bad foxes. The Inari-fox is good, and the bad foxes are afraid of the Inari-fox."  The Inari fox is the fox most deeply rooted in the religious elements of the fox mythology and many of the other myths stem from Inari. Though many instances of these fox myth throughout the story, Plum Wine did focus on one type more prominently.

The fox theme runs in criss crossing patterns across the narrative of Plum Wine, but the one that compelled me the most was the story of Ko.  Ko was believed to be a representative of one of the well known Kitsune myths about a fox woman tricking a man into marrying her. Seiji is a Japanese man helping with some translations for Barbara. He reads aloud the translations saying, "Mother-in-law said Ko had face of fox with broad cheeks and pointed chin and her eyes were pointed like a fox. Takasu family had been tricked.  This was a fox trick and Ko herself was fox, mother-in-law believed" (p. 126, Plum Wine).

I wanted to find out more about the type of fox myth that Ko's mother-in-law was concerned with but I had a hard time pinning down definitive sources for the information I found. After finding one summary point to another summary I found an original source that much of the information seemed to be gleaned from. Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance and Humor by Kiyosho Nozaki looks like an in depth study of these myths published in 1961. While this isn't a contemporary book, the date of its publication is particularly relevant to the time period of Plum Wine, 1966. Though I was not able to read Kiyosho Nozaki's book, I was able to read some excerpts from it to give me a little insight into this aspect of Japanese culture. More contemporary interpretations of Kitsune seem to be more marginalized in comics and anime as compared to the deep beliefs in the reality of such being in earlier eras.

Nozaki wrote, "Japan's fox is an expert in changing itself into any form, and its specialty is assuming the shape of a charming and seductive woman, to captivate a young man and an old gentleman susceptible to female charms." This was the fox that Ko's mother-in-law was afraid of. A trickster who had seduced her son and find a way to damage the family.


Kitsune in Japanese simply means fox, but through a folklore from Chinese or Korean culture it became deep and meaningful part of Japanese culture. The quality of a trickster can be mischievous or it can be malicious, but either way there were times when the Kitsune was believed to be very real for the Japanese people.

In Plum Wine Seiji tells one Kitsune myth to Barbara after looking at the artwork on a Japanese scroll. The story is similar to the one we later hear about regarding Michi's grandmother, Ko. Barbara's mother was once a reporter in Japan and brought this scroll back for her daughter before World War II. Barbara begins by telling him her what her friend, Michi, saw when she looked at the scroll.

"Michi thought this picture illustrates the fox woman leaving her child. I don't know the story, do you?"

"We have many fox stories in Japan. Usually fox changes into lovely woman to trick man. Most popular one is fox wife. In the tale most schoolchildren know, a hunter spares the life of a fox. Next day a woman comes to his house and offers to be his wife. He agrees and they spend some happy years together wither their child. But eventually the true shape of the wife is revealed--perhaps as they pass by water. Always reflection in water wil show true thing, fox figure instead of woman. So she must leave him and also their child." 

"What a sad ending." 

"This is very Japanese ending--we call it aware, graceful sorrow."

This sadness becomes the legacy of Ko also. She is forced by her mother-in-law to leave after to is "exposed" as a fox wife. There is something so contrary to the expected roles of motherhood represented in this Kitsune myth. For any mother, the idea of leaving a child behind under any circumstances is horrifying. And the stories leaves a haunted quality.

Watts Martin writes, "Most kitsune in stories are female—women in Japanese culture and many other patriarchies are also often seen with the bane/benefactor duality, the lady to be venerated and protected from manipulation set against the dangerous, manipulative femme fatale."  But this femme fatale is not the Kitsune of Plum Wine. The novel really utilises the myth as one of loss, rather than one of power and its misuses.  Martin's essay was one of the most compelling ones of the writing I was able to review in preparation for this post. The interesting part is that his statements reflect my experience reading Plum Wine, but not my experience in researching the topic.  I found it increasingly hard to find out more information about the wife fox myth.   In my quest to find out more about the wife myth of Kitsune, all I found was the same things explained in the novel.


It has been an interesting experience looking through many different websites and lists and types of foxes in Japanese myths, but when it come right down to the wife story, I had almost all the information from Plum Wine to begin with. There are definitely more opportunities to delve into this more in the future. And if you are also interested I have some links and books that might interest you. Watts Martin's essay, "Kitsune: Coyote of the Orient," is definitely going to be one of the first non fiction pieces I will go back to regarding this topic.



Short Stories
"Where Foxes Dance" by Wendy Hibbs
"Fox Magic" by Kij Johnson
"Cosmic Kitsune" by Tanith Perry-Mills

Picture Book
The Fox Maiden by Elsa Marston

Novels
Dark Swan series by Richelle Mead
The Vampire Diaries: The Return by L.J. Smith
The Fox Woman by Kaj Johnson
Serrated Edge series by Mercedes Lackey
The White Jade Fox by Andre Norton
Others by Karen Kincy




One last thing I found and loved was the following song called "Fox Woman" by Kathy Mar. I am also adding the lyrics of this song to the bottom of this post. Kathy's song is amazing and I am looking forward to exploring more of her music.


FOX-WOMAN

Mother falls on the mountain stair
Wild marauders footsteps fill the air
Fox appears drawn by moans and sighs
Reaching in despair the mother cries

Chorus:  Fox-woman, sister, we are one
  Give me vengeance though my life is done
  Fox-Woman, sister, name your fee
  Grant that I may strike my enemy

Rebels stare silent at the fox
As the wild beast chained in them unlocks
Killers flee fighting hard and wild
As fox-woman guards the one with child

Temple priest takes the mother in
Tells her that the vengeance will begin
Though she knows she must pay with death
Mother whispers with each passing breath

Chorus

Soft she comes to the temple door
Russet pelt a shadow near the floor
Deep the drums in her gentle heart
Keep the rhythm as the birth pains start

Russet gown, hem of snowy white
Now a woman steps into the light
Makes her way to the bed of pain
Reaches down with touch as soft as rain

As her touch melts into the flesh
Pain departs as fox and mother mesh
Screaming ends with one quiet breath
As the mother gives herself to death

And the priest raises up the knife
Carves a door to bring the child to life
Infant born still without a sound
Fox and woman spirits have been bound

Chorus

Killers come seeking for the child
Turned away by visions strong and wild
As they flee down the mountain stair
Vengeance, on fox footsteps, leaves her lair


Words and music:  Kathy Mar

Copyright 1986 Kathy Mar



4 comments:

  1. I think I first heard about the kitsune in the Vampire Diaries sequel, which was incredibly weird, but I found the myth interesting. I wanted to learn more about them, and had studied them briefly in a mythology course. But I hadn't thought of it again until this post, so thanks for putting in all the research.

    When I was in that mythology class, I found it interesting that across all cultures and belief systems, the fox was almost always represented as a trickster. They were always wise and cunning, but they would use that to deceive - not always in a bad way, but they were definitely manipulative. Native American trickster myths are especially intriguing. Wolves were mostly the bad deceivers while foxes the more cunning.

    I'll definitely have to check out the stories and books and essays you mention. Thanks again for putting all the time in!

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  2. What a fantastic post, Megan! I have to admit that mythology is one area that has never really interested me much until recently - I see references to it everywhere I turn now. The kids are I are studying the Dark Ages - including the Vikings - and so are going to be studying some of the Norse myths in the next couple of weeks. Should make a nice contrast to the Greek myths they are now very familiar with due to Percy Jackson. Maybe we should do a unit on Asian myths!

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  3. Great post! I love when a book triggers an interest like this. I totally forgot about the Kitsune in Vampire Diaries.

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  4. This is a great post. This is tangentially related, but one book I think you'll be highly interested in Kara Dalkey's The Nightingale, a retelling of HC Anderson's "The Emperor and the Nightingale," but set in feudal Japan. It has lots of cool Japanese folklore and customs wrapped up in the story. I think you'd really enjoy it.

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