Women are frequently found as characters within Japanese tales and many times these women are portrayed as kitsune, or fox spirits. There is a special connection found between women and kitsune in Japanese tales. Women are often associated with kitsune in Japanese tales because the fox spirits often transform into women and typically deceive men, however, there are other tales associated with women and kitsune. These tales frequently offer insights into important cultural practices of the time and the roles and expectations of women are often reflective in Japanese tales. The Heian period (794-1185) was a time when Buddhism was beginning to spread throughout Japan and more people were following Confucian practices. These practices were influential on cultural views and expectations of people during this time. Examining the roles of women and men during this period sheds light on cultural views of behavior that would ensure both spiritual and physical wellness. These roles and expectations differ between women and men and help define gender expectations during the Heian Period. Cultural expectations of how women should behave can be found through the mystifying and haunting tales of Japanese culture. The association between women and kitsune has a meaningful relationship in understanding the cultural roles and expectations of women through subtle and sly societal connections.
The Heian period was a time of peace and prosperity (Hidden Sun, 13). There was also a strong emphasis on Confucian beliefs especially on the aspect of filial piety (Hidden Sun, 15). Filial piety is the concept that you should be good to your mother and father and this concept is essential in understanding Japan culture during the Heian period. By the culture having such an emphasis on filial piety, women were given an extra incentive and expectation to get married, become good wives, and good daughter in laws. Within the Confucian ideology patriarchal families were the “model of how societies should be organized” (Widows of Japan,418). Marriage practices during this time were better than earlier periods for women but not yet ideal to certain theologies. Women had some independence within their marriage but other struggles came along with this new found “freedom”. At this time, men were allowed to take multiple wives while women were only permitted one spouse (Haruko, 74). It is important to consider that most scholarly writings typically talk about women in the context of marriage. One reason to acknowledge this finding is because social values that are considered of high importance would be recorded. One of the most important roles of women at the time would be to become a good wife. It was believed that by following these societal beliefs the families would not only gain physical benefits but also spiritual benefits (Lindsey, 38-39). Later during the Edo period (1603-1868), many families adopted the use of a female lifestyle guide called the Onna Chohoki (Lindsey, 36). This lifestyle guide said that marriage determines whether a young women flourishes or withers and if they did not follow the guidelines the divine punishment was typically disease (Lindsey, 39-40). Knowing background information on the Heian period allows for a deeper understanding in to one Japanese tale that had subtle influences on the expectations of women and the roles they played during the Heian period.
The tale, “The Loving Fox”, is a Japanese tale about a man walking down the street who meets a beautiful woman who turns out to be a fox (Royall, 115). According to Taylor Royall’s book, Japanese Tales, the woman warns the man that if they lay together that she will die instead of him and that if he wished to honor her that he should write the lotus sutra in her honor. And this is indeed what happens. This tale has several subtle hints about gender roles woven through the intricate tale about a man simply walking down the street. As mentioned previously, men had more freedom than women during this time. You would not hear this tale being told with the roles reversed. You would not find a tale that a woman was walking down the street and that she thought a man was handsome and approached him. This shows a glimpse into the masculine superiority and its influence over women.
One of the main points to address is the idea that the woman was portrayed as being a fox. The fact that the “woman” was not actually a woman but portrayed as an animal, suggests that being a woman has different value than a man in the tale. The story also seems to emphasizes more the spiritual than the physical by mentioning about the lotus sutra. In this particular tale, marriage is not involved as it is in other kitsune tales, but it is also possible to infer from this tale that there is a consequence for the woman “laying in his arms” because she dies in place of him. There is no punishment for the man which expresses the idea that men have more freedom than women.
For the Heian period being a time of peace and prosperity (Robins-Mowry, 13) women in general did not feel as much of the effects of freedom as men. While there was in no way the same amount of freedom for women as there was for men, it can be seen through Japanese tales with kitsune that the role and expectations of women were different than that of men. During this time, men were also constantly gone to visit other women (Robins-Mowry, 15) which can explain why there were no problems for the man. While some stories about Kitsune, especially those where they are married, emphasize the expectations of women.
However, “The Loving Fox” is a favorite example of a tale where the meaning behind it is more on the subtle side and leaves for more personal interpretation which could have a bigger influence on the culture at that time. After delving deeper into the enriching history of the Heian period, the folklore and tales of the time can begin to bring a new meaning to the sometimes confusing, and mysterious tales. As previously discussed, the roles of women have a connection to kitsune that helps to understand the context of women throughout the Heian period. One last point to acknowledge is that history has many more explanations than just the expectations of women that can be found throughout Japanese tales, and the next time you read or hear of a tale, research the historical background because you may find a subtle connection to explain other significant cultural practices.
Haruko, Wakita, and Suzanne Gay. “Marriage and Property in Premodern Japan from the Perspective of Women’s History.” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 1984, p. 73. doi:10.2307/132182.
Lindsey, William. “Religion and the Good Life: Motivation, Myth, and Metaphor in a Tokugawa Female Lifestyle Guide.” Jstor, Nanzan University, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30233776.
Robins-Mowry, Dorothy. The Hidden Sun: Women of Modern Japan. Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1983.
Tyler, Royall. Japanese Tales. New York, Pantheon Books, 1987.
“Widows of Japan: an Anthropological Perspective.” Choice Reviews Online, vol. 49, no. 01, Jan. 2011, doi:10.5860/choice.49-0363.