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People who start eating too much all of a sudden, talk gibberish and worry whether their face getting longer may be possessed by goblin foxes. Or at least that’s what is believed in Japanese folklore, where foxes were often seen as “witch animals”, especially during the superstitious Edo period (1603–1867). They were thought to be goblins who couldn’t be trusted (similar to some badgers and cats).
Stories of these goblin foxes are popular throughout Japan, and there are even modern day reports of people, especially women being ‘possessed’, or taken over, by them. Families in some rural areas are noted to keep foxes for practicing sorcery against the less well-equipped and vulnerable members of the community.
In 1963, a priest of the temple near Tottori described how to identify families keeping foxes. ‘It is easy’, he said. ‘You can see the foxes sitting in rows along the eaves, shading their eyes with their paws, or playing together in front of the house.’
Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox. According to Yōkai folklore (a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore), all foxes have the ability to shape shift into human form. Some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others. The more tails a kitsune has—they may have as many as nine—the older, wiser, and more powerful it is.
Kitsunetsuki, also written kitsune-tsuki, literally means “the state of being possessed by a fox”. The victim is usually a young woman, who the fox enters beneath her fingernails or through her breasts. In some cases, the victim’s facial expressions are said to be altered, resembling those of a fox. Japanese tradition holds that fox possession can cause illiterate victims to temporarily gain the ability to read. Symptoms include cravings for rice or sweet adzuki beans, listlessness, restlessness, and aversion to eye contact. Though foxes in folklore can possess a person of their own will, kitsunetsuki is often attributed to the malign intents of hereditary fox employers, or tsukimono-suji.
People buying a fox-owner’s property inherit the stigma of being involved in such fearful behavior, and buyers are hard to find even when prices have plummeted.
Folklorist Lafcadio Hearn described the condition:
Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. And on some part of the body of the possessed a moving lump appears under the skin, which seems to have a life of its own. Prick it with a needle, and it glides instantly to another place. By no grasp can it be so tightly compressed by a strong hand that it will not slip from under the fingers. Possessed folk are also said to speak and write languages of which they were totally ignorant prior to possession. They eat only what foxes are believed to like — tofu*, aburagé*, azukimeshi*, etc. — and they eat a great deal, alleging that not they, but the possessing foxes, are hungry.— Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, vol. 1
Exorcism, often performed at an Inari shrine, may induce a fox to leave its host. In the past, when such gentle measures failed or a priest was not available, victims of kitsunetsuki were beaten or badly burned in hopes of forcing the fox to leave. Entire families were ostracized by their communities after a member of the family was thought to be possessed.
The ‘treatment’ for possession by foxes was a drastic one. Within living memory, a possessed woman was treated by having all food stopped, pepper sprinkled in her eyes,nose and mouth, a rub-down with red-hot sticks and holes bored in her breast and abdomen.
Whether the treatment was successful is unknown. The patients subjected to this treatment died within three days.