Travel Alert Japan: Beware of Possible Fox Spirit Possession

The average tourist coming to Japan tends to worry over language problems, about navigating Shinjuku Station, about sitting down to a meal that looks less like it belongs on a plate than it does swimming in an exotic aquarium. Not very many tourists concern themselves with the possibility of becoming possessed by the spirit of a fox.

I’d never thought much about it, either, I must admit. Until one evening at my sensei’s home down near Nara, when he pulled out a scroll, creamy yellow with age, from among several in a box of fragrant paulownia wood. I’d examined most of them before. They were the densho, the written teachings of a school of swordsmanship; one passed down in his family for several generations. Unroll most of them and you would find explanations of technique for the battlefield; methods of swordplay, strategies for fortification. A few were esoteric: details for erecting a house or castle to take advantage of natural protection, or predicting weather correctly to better plan an attack. And one, this one, was just weird.

It was filled with chants to invoke Marishiten, the Goddess of the Pole star, who has the power to make the warrior’s intentions and strategy invisible to an opponent. There were mental exercises designed to allow a samurai to overcome the jitters and sleep soundly the night before a battle. Spells that would work the debilitating influences of psychological “sicknesses” like self-doubt or anxiety, on the enemy. And, written in archaic Japanese in the scroll was a complete, do-it-yourself guide for the rituals of exorcism for fox-spirit possession.

Like their counterparts in the West, Japanese foxes are fabled for their cunning, cleverness, and guile. They figure in all kinds of Japanese versions of Aesop’s fables and other folk tales. You’re apt to see their likenesses at various Shinto shrines throughout the country. A pair of foxes guards the entrance to these shrines, lean and bright-eyed with vigilance. These are servants of Inari, the Shinto deity of the rice plant. No shrine dedicated to him is without its attendant fox sculptures. Inari sushi, the kind with flavoured rice stuffed into a golden pouch of sweet, deep-fried tofu, is named after this spirit. Pieces of inari sushi are sometimes left as offerings at Inari shrines, under the paws of the stone fox guardians.

Foxes, though, play a more malevolent role in Japanese folklore. Capable of possessing the souls of the unwary, they have been known to turn their victims into zombies or drive them permanently insane. “You should ask Mrs. Miura about it,” Sensei told me. “She lives down at the foot of the hill.”

A widow born during the reign of Hirohito’s father, Emperor Meiji-she had a portrait of him hanging in her home-Mrs. Miura was a library of information on the subject of kitsune-gami or “fox-spirit possession.” She told me about its symptoms. “No appetite, insomnia; hands are cold all the time.” Local stories of possession. “You know that road over behind the natural gas store? That’s White Fox Lane. Back in the old days a woman who lived over there, every night she’d wake up and fill a bowl of rice and run down to where that bridge is now and leave it. One night the neighbours watched and they saw she was following a white fox. It had possessed her, they said, and was making her feed it.” And Mrs. Miura rattled off two family names from the area that had, long ago, been known as kitsune-mochi. These were families, social outcasts that were believed to have kept foxes in their homes, sending them out to perform dark deeds. “Long ago” was a key phrase here, right? I suggested. “Well,” Mrs. Miura looked at me. In the mid-1950s, she said, there had been a tragedy when a girl from a hereditary clan of fox-keepers wanted to marry into a “normal” family. The parents of her fiancée forbid it. The lovers both committed suicide.

I walked back home to Sensei’s house after my visit with Mrs. Miura that night, a trifle more alert, I must admit, than usual. There was some rustling in the trees I’d never noticed before. Some shadows that flitted on the periphery of my vision. And when I got back, I asked to take another look at that scroll.

The rites of fox-spirit exorcism began with cautionary advice. The exorcist had to ascertain the reasons for the possession. As Mrs. Miura had explained, sometimes foxes were simply full of malice for humans or, in the case of the woman forced to make a take-out delivery under the bridge every night, were using their power for their own ends. In other cases, such as those where a fox-owning family of sorcerers was involved, the animals were enslaved, under the control of their masters. The actual methods for ridding the possessed of their fox spirits centred around a series of chants, broken down into syllables. They sounded like gibberish when I sounded them out.

“They’re from Sanskrit,” Sensei told me. Accompanied by a series of gestures made with the hands, weaving the fingers together in an unfolding pattern, these sounds were part of the doctrine of mikkyo. It’s a form of esoteric Buddhism with Indian origins, one where the powers of a cohort of Buddhist deities can be summoned through chants and gestures. Those who know a little about the martial arts of Japan assume Zen is the predominant influence on their philosophy. Actually, it’s mikkyo that forms the foundation of the samurai’s arts. That’s why Sanskrit characters are often engraved on swords, armour, even chiseled into the stones of castle walls. And it’s why, hidden away in scrolls that may not be unrolled more than once a decade, some schools of swordsmanship included these ancient rituals of fox-spirit exorcism in their curriculum.

Walking through the high-fashion glitter of the Ginza, or the high-tech district of Akihabara; in the futuristic world of modern Japan, fox-spirit exorcism seems about as relevant as Celtic runes are to the Euro-dollar. But in the backwoods of rural Japan, in neighbourhoods where the names of “fox-keeper” clans are still remembered, in places where a daily trip to the grocery store takes you along roads like White Fox Lane? Well, let’s just say it’s comforting to know exactly where that scroll is stored.

©Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in JAL: Winds, Japan Airlines’ in-flight magazine.