One thing I love about Folklore Thursdays is the chance to explore the folklore behind modern stories, so I try to reserve Thursdays for posts that are folklore related. Beth Cato is with us today to talk about the Japanese folklore surrounding the kitsune--a type of Japanese werefox that I first encountered in M.L. Brennan's fabulous Generation V series.
Beth's latest novel, Breath of Earth, also features those trickster kitsune in an alternate version of 1906. Check out the blurb:
In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation—the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer wardens who have no idea of the depth of her power—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.
When assassins kill the wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose Earth’s powers to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming the city into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off. . . .
Forced on the run, Ingrid makes some shocking discoveries about herself. Her powerful magic has grown even more fearsome . . . and she may be the fulcrum on which the balance of world power rests.
Kitsune and the Game of Kitsune-Ken
My novel Breath of Earth was released this past Tuesday. It is steampunk fantasy with a unique twist on alternate history: a military alliance between America and Japan has likewise blended their cultures. Japanese-inspired fashions are all the rage in San Francisco. It is customary to switch to house slippers when indoors. Food, language, architecture--the cross-pollination of Japanese culture is everywhere, along with a massive influx of Japanese immigrants.
People aren't the only entities to venture across the Pacific Ocean. The world of Breath of Earth features not-so-mythological magical creatures that are often labeled as fantastics. It's not uncommon to see fairies flutter about the garden, or an iron-shod pooka forced to pull a rich man's cart. Japanese fantastics are present as well, including kitsune.
If you play video games or watch anime, you're already familiar with kitsune to some degree. If you see a fox with more than one tail, that's a kitsune. Even Sonic the Hedgehog's friend Tails would count. Kitsune are fox spirits and tricksters of a nefarious sort. Stories vary a great deal, but to speak in generalities, they can shapeshift, seduce men or women, and even steal human bodies. A kitsune gains another tail with every century of life, with nine-tailed foxes regarded as incredibly powerful and dangerous. As part of their fox nature, they are afraid of dogs.
If you have ever heard the Japanese phone greeting of "Moshi moshi"--the equivalent of "Hello"--that goes back to an ancient test against kitsune. The foxes are said to be incapable of pronouncing "moshi moshi." Therefore, if you say that to a faceless person over the telephone and they can't repeat the phrase back, that means the person on the other end is a kitsune and impostor.
I stumbled upon an interesting way to introduce kitsune within my book.
Early on in the revision process, my agent suggested that I show more bonding between my heroine, Ingrid, and her mentor and adoptive father, Mr. Sakaguchi. I wondered if there was some kind of game they could play together. That's how I discovered the game kitsune-ken.
Kitsune-ken is a hand game not all that different from American games like Rock, Paper, Scissors. As I describe it in chapter 1 of Breath of Earth:
[Ingrid] knelt to face him and tilted an ear toward the Graphophone, her hands poised in midair. Simultaneously, she and Mr. Sakaguchi clapped hands to a beat of three. She quickly moved her hands to make two Vs atop her head--fox ears--while at the same time Mr. Sakaguchi briefly rested his hands on his lap.
Ingrid cackled. She won that round--a kitsune's magic could bewitch a chief. Mr. Sakaguchi's face twitched as they began the clapping again. This time, she positioned her hands as if on a rifle, with her right hand on a trigger and her left extended like the barrel of a gun. Mr. Sakaguchi made fox ears. The hunter's gun could kill the kitsune. She won again.
"At least try," she teased.
This was one of those remarkable moments when a surprise historical nugget worked seamlessly into my existing manuscript. The YouTube video was especially helpful because not only could I see the geisha demonstrate how to play, but I could listen to the shamisen music as well.
If you want to learn more about kitsune, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. Be sure to scroll to the bottom to the reference section and look for a downloadable old book called Kitsune — Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humor. You'll learn how to identify kitsune possession and how to, ahem, be medicated after intimate relations with a fox spirit.
For a more modern, academic exploration of the subject, Karen A. Smyer's The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship is a fantastic read that explores the role of the fox throughout Japanese culture and religion.
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Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone. Her newest novel is Breath of Earth. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.