Foxes (狐 or kitsune) are associated with the God Inari (稲荷) who is worshiped for fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry and general prosperity and success. Foxes are the messenger of Inari and are usually pure white. Fox statues sit outside the Inari shrines, in the olden days live foxes would roam around the shrine and be taken care of, however, this is not current practice.
Because rice was very important in early Japan the Inari were heavily worshiped. Foxes ate rodents that would eat the rice, so they were seen as protectors of rice and were therefore also revered.
There are two different categories of foxes, Zeko and Yako. Zenko are the friendly foxes that are associated with the God Inari, and are usually called "Inari foxes". Yako foxes are the evil mischievous foxes that trick and deceive humans, and are afraid of zeko foxes.
Local legends have added on to this list by creating thirteen different categories according to different elements, and supernatural abilities a fox can possess. The elements associated with a fox are as follows: Heaven, Dark, Wind, Spirit, Fire, Earth, River, Ocean, Mountain, Forest, Thunder, Time and Sound. Supernatural abilities can range greatly depending on a variety of actors, this will be discussed in the next section.
Foxes supernatural abilities progress as they grow older and the more tails they have. A fox can gain a maximum of nine tails, and once they reach 100 years they learn the ability to shape-shift into humans. Foxes usually take the form of young girls, beautiful women or older men.
Foxes are known for their trickery, so their powers usually revolve around the idea of deception. A fox can possess others, manifest into someones dreams, become invisible and create illusions. There are legends of extremely powerful fox's that can cause a person to go insane, and even bend time and space.
The Inari shrine is the home to fox's everywhere in Japan. These shrines are recognizable by the stone fox statues and the red torii gates at the entrance. There are over 2,000 shrines in Japan dedicated to Inari so you'll have no trouble finding them when you visit Japan.
It's customary to offer rice, sake and other food to appease the foxes who are then said to go back to Inari and plead on the worshipper's behalf. You can also offer a fried tofu dish called Inari-zushi which is said to be the foxes favorite food.
Some notable shrines include:
1. Kasama Inari Shrine in Kasama, Ibaraki
2. Namiyoke Inari Shrine in Chuo, Tokyo
3. Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine in Chuo-ku, Osaka
4. Takekoma Inari Shrine in Iwanuma, Miyagi
There are also Buddhist Temples dedicated to Inari including:
1. Toyokawa Inari in Toyokawa, Aichi
2. Saijo Inari in Okayama
I can't list everything fox related in one article, but hopefully you learned something about Japanese mythology that is still prevalent in Japanese society today. In a future article I will be discussing the significance of other animals that Japan still hold in high respect.