Big in Japan: Ghosts and Witches and Foxes, Oh My!

If you look closely, you’ll notice the little red fox ear

I grew up in Japan, where one hears stories about skeletal witches, ferocious demons and shape-shifting foxes which would lead humans to their doom.

One of these stories involves a beautiful shape-shifting fox-woman who bewitched real-life Emperor Konoe (1142-1155), threatening his life. He was saved by his court astrologer, however, which only proves that astrologers should hold our heads up! We’re big in Japan.

The story goes that an intelligent and accomplished young woman, Tamamo-no-Mae, deeply impressed the Emperor and his court. There was no question she could not answer, and if that were not enough, she was always sweet-smelling, her clothes always fresh. Everyone at the Imperial Court was besotted by her, especially the Emperor. However, as with all shape-shifters, there was a catch:

After some time had passed, with Konoe all the while lavishing all his affection on the beautiful Tamamo-no-Mae, the Emperor suddenly and mysteriously fell ill. He went to many priests and fortune-tellers for answers, but they had none to offer. Finally, an astrologer, Abe no Yasuchika, told the Emperor that Tamamo-no-Mae was the cause of his illness. The astrologer explained that the beautiful young woman was in fact a nine-tailed fox (kitsune) working for an evil Daimyo [warlord], who was making the Emperor ill in a devious plot to take the throne. Following this, Tamamo-no-Mae disappeared from the court. The Emperor ordered Kazusa-no-suke and Miura-no-suke, the most powerful warriors of the day, to hunt and kill the fox. Early the next day, the hunters found the fox on the Plain of Nasu, and Miura-no-suke shot and killed the magical creature with an arrow. The body of the fox became the Sessho-seki, (殺生石) or Killing Stone, which kills anyone that comes in contact with it. Tamamo-no-Mae’s spirit became Hoji and haunted the stone.

An explanation of the fox shape-shifter motif (stolen from Wiki):

The fox witch is by far the most commonly seen witch figure in Japan. Differing regional beliefs set those who use foxes into two separate types: the kitsune-tsukai, and the kitsune-mochi.The first of these, the kitsune-tsukai, gains his fox familiar by bribing it with its favourite foods. The kitsune-tsukai then strikes up a deal with the fox, typically promising food and daily care in return for the fox’s magical services. The fox of Japanese folklore is a powerful trickster in and of itself, imbued with powers of shape changing, possession, and illusion. These creatures can be either nefarious; disguising themselves as women in order to trap men, or they can be benign forces as in the story of ‘The Grateful Foxes’. However, once a fox enters the employ of a man it almost exclusively becomes a force of evil to be feared.A fox under the employ of a human can provide him with many services. The fox can turn invisible and be set out to find secrets and it still retains its many powers of illusion which its master will often put to use in order to trick his enemies. The most feared power the kitsune-tsukai possesses is his ability to command his fox to possess other humans.

Then there is the famous confrontation between Watanabe no Tsuna and the witch Ibaraki: A friend challenged Watanabe to spend the night at the Hojo Temple in Kyoto, where he could have an encounter with the only demon left in Japan. Disturbed in the middle of the night, he flailed wildly with his sword, cutting off the arm of the awful demon Ibaraki. Later as Watanabe performs Shinto rites over the arm, Ibaraki returns disguised as his elderly aunt, retrieves the arm, and flies away. The fierce samurai grasps his sword as the demon flies upwards.

Fearsome, loathsome witch/demon

In this close-up of a larger scene, you see the detailed head of a demon-witch as she is forced off a mountain-top by a brave samurai. This is what samurai did; they went around the land, clearing it of witches and demons.

Original Kuniyoshi (1797-1861): Watanabe no Tsuna Cutting off the Demon’s Arm at Rashomon, ca. 1834-1835

Watanabe no Tsuna arrives at Hojo Temple to pound a prohibited notice board into the ground, to drive away the witch. Before he has a chance to act, the horrific demon snarls at him from above, clinging to one of the temple pillars with glowing yellow eyes, grabbing his battle helmet. The determined warrior reaches up and grasps the horned demon’s arm as he slowly draws his sword, ready to cut off the arm.