Fox spirits or simply ‘kitsune’ (fox in Japanese) have a long history in both China and Japan. In both Chinese and Japanese folklore, fox spirits are intelligent and have the ability to shape shift into human form causing tricks and mischief to humans (usually in the form of an alluring beauty), but they can also be helpful friends, guardians and even lovers and wives.
New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Oji by Hiroshige (1857)
In Japanese folklore, they are the servants of Inari, the Shinto deity of rice. Shinto shrines and temples will often have statues of foxes through which practitioners can petition the deity. However, they can also be tricksters, with motives that vary from mischief to malevolence. Those with mental illness or other ailments were sometimes believed to be possessed by fox spirits.
Their form as shapeshifting seductresses in many stories too, perhaps reflect the fear and general suspicion with which women were held traditionally in male dominated Confucian societies such as China and Japan.
Dancing Fox by Koson (c.1910)
Ohara Koson (1877-1945) was most famous as a master of bird and flower pictures, but here he has turned the fox into a humorous mischief-maker wearing a lotus leaf as a hat. It stands upright too, further mimicking human behaviour.
This is perhaps one of Koson’s most celebrated designs and he in fact did two versions; the other has wild grasses in the foreground and background. Many collectors prefer this design.