Simply put, ‘kitsune’ is the Japanese word for fox, but that’s selling the story short. The kitsune forges an endless folkloric rabbit hole. Labelling a kitsune as a mere yōkai is an insurmountable disservice to a profound mark on Japanese culture.
The kitsune is engraved deeply enough into Japanese culture that children play a ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ variant called Kitsune-Ken!
Luckily, Game Freak provided multiple Pokémon evolution trees accentuating different kitsune traits, so I can keep things tidy by separating Ninetales, Zoroark, and Delphox.
And you better believe that endearing little Ninetales is our first Pokémon to step up to the plate. She the most popular. Ninetales is one of the original 151 and boasts an extraordinary hidden ability that sets bright-and-sunny weather on switch-in.
Most importantly, Ninetales is the ideal candidate for expressing the sheer magnitude of what kitsune truly means.
Let’s open up with in-game lore related to Ninetales. For both your sanity and mine, we’re going to skip over Pokémon games with duplicate entries.
Red/Blue: Very smart and very vengeful. Grabbing one of its many tails could result in a 1000-year curse.
Yellow: According to an enduring legend, 9 noble saints were united and reincarnated as this Pokémon.
Gold: Some legends claim that each of its nine tails has its own unique type of special mystic power.
Silver: Its nine beautiful tails are filled with a wondrous energy that could keep it alive for 1,000 years.
Crystal: It is said to live a thousand years, and each of its tails is loaded with supernatural powers.
Ruby: Ninetales casts a sinister light from its bright red eyes to gain total control over its foe’s mind. This Pokémon is said to live for a thousand years.
Sapphire: Legend has it that Ninetales came into being when nine wizards possessing sacred powers merged into one. This Pokémon is highly intelligent – it can understand human speech.
Emerald: It has long been said that each of the nine tails embody an enchanted power. A long-lived Ninetales will have fur that shines like gold.
Moon: Said to live for a thousand years, this Pokémon uses its supernatural abilities to manipulate fire. It can burn its prey to a crisp as it pleases.
Ultra Moon: The flickering flames it spews from its mouth leave its opponents hypnotized. Then, this extremely intelligent Pokémon attacks.
Alright, so those entries were a touch more macabre than expected, but the highlighted powers align with the consensus of a conventional kitsune.
Game Freak also placed heaps of emphasis on their thousand-year lifespan and otherworldly intelligence. We’re off to a good start!
In fact, early stage Game Freak was so determined to clutch Ninetales to her folkloric roots that they never questioned the ethicality of children capturing divine puppets – practically guaranteed to outlive their trainers – in cramped Pokeballs.
Seriously, is poor Ninetales destined to spend 900 years trapped in a ball with no master? Oh well, we’re used to half-baked logic in video games. We’ll get over it.
Generally speaking, kitsune who appear in yōkai anecdotes are often yako (field foxes) or ninko. (invisible fox spirits seen exclusively by those they possess.)
The kitsune that Ninetales represents is a much bigger deal! Game Freak designed Ninetales to mimic messengers of the most popular Kami (deity, spirit, or god) in all of Japan – Inari.
More on that later…
First, the basics:
The elegant design of Ninetales stems from the Kyuubi no Kitsune, the nine-tailed fox. Why is it so important to distinguish a nine-tailed fox from various other kitsune?
For starters, every kitsune endures great hardship every hundred years. Each fox capable of rising above the turmoil is rewarded with a new tail.
Each tail holds a unique magical power. We see references to that in Ninetales’ Pokédex entries. As you might imagine, foxes reach their maximum potential after attaining their ninth tail.
Like many of Japan’s traditions, we can trace the origins of Kyuubi no Kitsune back to some dusty old Chinese documents. That sort of thing is destined to happen when your next-door neighbor invented paper!
Our story begins over 1600 years before the inception of Ninetales.
During the Jin Dynasty (266-420 A.D.), the Chinese dubbed the tale of the Tenko: a divine beast that takes the form of a fox. According to legend, a fox could shapeshift into a woman at fifty years old and take on the form of a beauty (or elderly shaman) at the ripe age of 100.
Storytellers often proclaim that a Tenko speaks with such elevated kindness and charm that they’re capable of forcing humans into a state of confusion or permanent dementia.
It’s said a man could force open the mind of a Tenko and procure centuries worth of wisdom with one of three tricks:
The Chinese were the first to claim that the fox would connect with the sky after a thousand years, becoming immortal. It’s also worth noting that the Japanese still use the term ‘tenko’ somewhat interchangeably with Kyuubi no Kitsune today.
It’s no accident that Game Freak bestowed Ninetales with fire typing. Kitsune are famous for their ability to manifest and manipulate flames.
That isn’t all! Kitsune legends have grown to include a handful of devastating supernatural abilities:
Again, we do see confirmation of these paranormal abilities in Ninetales’ Pokédex entries, but I’m saving the details for my posts about Zoroark and Delphox. For now, let’s delve deeper into occult powers exclusive to legends surrounding the elusive Kyuubi no Kitsune:
The handful of foxes who survive a millennium gain the ability to sense all worldly tensions. They can hear everything. They can see everything. Many storytellers mention that a Kyuubi no Kitsune achieves pure, unadulterated omniscience.
Upon transformation, the coat of a Kyuubi no Kitsune shifts to white or silver. Many modern depictions include bright red markings on the creature’s face or the tips of its tails. While the markings etched into the edges of the tails on our cherished Ninetales are substantially duller, they’re still a distinguishable nod to folk artists. Game Freak wins some bonus points for awarding shiny Ninetales a silver coat.
The original artists at Game Freak exercised precision and care here.
A fully grown Kyuubi no Kitsune earns the ability to fly and the title of “celestial fox.” She also secures her role as a messenger of Inari.
So, who the heck is Inari? I keep prattling about her as if she’s this quintessential piece to the origin story of our Pokémon in question.
Look, I’m going to take a risk here and assume that if Ninetales is your favorite Pokémon, you’ve been growing with the franchise for a while. Better yet, if you took some time out of your daily routine to search a Pokémon origins article, I bet you have a deep-seated fascination with history.
Tracing back to the roots of Inari, her name stems from the Japanese words: Ine (Rice) and Nari (Growing). Legends state that Inari first appeared at the moment of Japan’s creation.
I’m referring to Inari as a woman since she’s most often represented as such, but Inari is commonly referred to as a man or androgynous figure, particularly among Buddhist monks. To be frank, Inari has become this hyper-personalized Kami, crafted to suit each individual’s own needs.
A lot of times, Inari is a culmination of 3-5 Kami clustered together like a bunch of kids who fuse their rings to become Captain Planet, except more… Godly and mature.
Inari is the Goddess of rice. Considering rice was synonymous with wealth, fortune, and harvest, it’s easy to grasp how interpretations began to stretch as far as pleasure, forging weapons, or a warrior’s success as Inari’s popularity grew throughout the Edo period.
And that’s precisely what happened: Feudal lords moved from region to region, packing their personal beliefs of Inari with them as they bounced around the country with the fluidity of pinballs.
Inari grew so popular that she’s now honored in one-third of all Shinto shrines scattered throughout Japan today. That’s over 32,000 shrines, in case you’re curious.
If you’ve seen a vermillion torii (the big red Shinto gates) before, you’ve seen a monument dedicated to Inari.
In the West, it’s easy for us to label the Shinto religion as a form of Japanese paganism. Still, I’d like to stress that Shinto has a remarkably unique relationship with Buddhism. There’s a level of coexistence between the two formless entities that helped shape a rich culture throughout Japan.
In fact, the very first confirmed records of Inari come from Buddhist origin. In 8th century Kyoto, a new Buddhist branch called Shingon emerged in the town of Fushimi. The monk declared Inari as the temple’s protector.
In 1468, the temple in Fushimi was set ablaze and charred into the ground during the Onin war. Although, it wasn’t long before the government built a new, flashier temple in its place. Inari had already left a lasting impression on Japan.
Today, it’s common practice to take a pilgrimage to Fushimi Shrine.
In every story that proclaims Inari descended to Earth, she’s riding a Kyuubi no Kitsune.
Customarily, Zenko (not to be confused with tenko – the celestial fox stories that originated in China) are deemed virtuous foxes. Zenko are messengers of Inari. They have a strong connection to the spirit world, and are infamous for moving back and forth between realms seamlessly. Scholars speculate that this is due to the fact that foxes burrow underground, which is where the spirit world is often believed to exist.
Zenko foxes live in complex societies, not unlike humans. Japanese storytellers often articulate that Zenko foxes have a class system of their own. The Kyuubi no Kitsune rests at the top of the hierarchy. From there, the order of significance goes something like this:
So a fox doesn’t necessarily need to become Kyuubi no Kitsune to fall into the category of a benign Zenko. All foxes have the capacity to be good foxes.
All the adorable little foxes line up with the formality of soldiers and have meetings, ceremonies, debates, and even little marches when they’re needed somewhere.
Outside of each temple honoring Inari, you’ll see two kitsune statues. Sometimes more, but they always appear in pairs: one male and one female. The statues carry symbolic items in their mouths or beneath their front paws – things like jewels, keys, scrolls, fox cubs.
When someone presents an offering for Inari, they aren’t giving her direct gifts. Instead, people leave offerings for her kitsune, hoping that the fox will relay a message to Inari. They typically provide foxes with fried tofu or foods that contain it. There’s even a form of Sushi made specifically for kitsune offerings. It’s called Inari-Zushi – it’s filled with fried tofu and has pointed corners to resemble the ears of a fox!
Lafcadio Hearn elaborated on a few of the finer details while writing Unfamiliar Glimpses of Japan. (circa 1894.) During his travels through Izumo, Hearn found such an intense devotion to foxes, he went as far as to address it as a ‘cult among peasantry.’ Shrines included specially made fox-holes – filled with treats similar to those used today. Scattered grains of rice frequently encircled the burrow space. Occasionally, a man would eat a rice pellet to cure his ailments or prevent sickness when it ran rampant.
Sometimes shrines to Inari include a box full of little Zenko figurines. If you have a wish that you’d like Inari to grant, you can carry the fox figurine with you until that wish is granted. Once that day comes, you should return the Zenko figurine to the shrine, along with a small offering as thanks.
These shrines are a big deal! Merchants line up outside of temples, selling unique gifts tailored to the taste palette of a glorious kitsune.
If you ever find yourself at a Japanese festival, chances are you’ll see kitsune masks line stalls and people alike, too!
While the Kyuubi no Kitsune is predominantly well-behaved, there’s a wildly villainous exception. One celestial fox made a name for itself as one of the three most vile yōkai to ever set foot on Earth. These three evil spirits are called Nihon san dai aku yōkai.
I don’t expect you to remember that chain of words, but there is a name you should remember: Tamamo no Mae. She’s the nine-tailed kitsune who single-handedly takes credit for ending the age of the Emperors. Her wicked deeds abruptly decimated the Heian period, ushering in an era of military dictatorship.
After Tamamo no Mae, Japan wouldn’t see another Emperor for over 600 years.
This yōkai was a menace to Japanese society!
Throughout the Heian period, four families controlled the court: The Taira clan, the Fujiwara clan, the Minamoto clan, and the Tachibana clan. These infamous families upheld their authority by marrying their daughters into families within the highest ranks. It wasn’t hard to accomplish since marriages in the Heian period required no documentation. Polyamorous behavior was also perfectly normal.
The story of Tamamo no Mae reached its peak of grandeur during Hokusai’s version, written during the hyper-superstitious Edo period (1603-1867.) It goes something like this:
In ancient China, a skilled fox sorceress with an ominous spirit seduced her way into laps of two great leaders. Tamamo no Mae lusted for influence and control in a way that no other being could fathom. She used her wit to numb the minds of her lovers, persuading them to massacre the innocent and brutally decapitate anyone who stood in her way.
The conniving fox ended the Shang and Zhou dynasties in full, using nothing more than her own bewitching charm.
Of course, when a married couple steps outside for a stroll and notices an abandoned infant lying on the ground, we can’t expect them to identify it as a malevolent fox. They felt sympathetic for her. They picked that child up and raised her as their own.
They named her Mikuzune. She was gifted with uncanny intelligence. In fact, she was so bright her adoptive parents proudly sent her to read poetry for the Emperor when she was only seven years old.
Emperor Toba was mesmerized. He immediately appointed her as a servant of the court. Over time, young Mikuzune secured the adoration of everyone in the land.
There was no question the child couldn’t answer. Astronomy, music, history, she mastered it all. Anyone who laid eyes upon young Mikazune swore she was the most beautiful being in all of Japan.
Upon growing up, she acquired her name: Tamamo no Mae. The Emperor made her his consort, and she happily accepted.
Although from that day on, the Emperor grew weaker with each passing hour.
Tamamo no Mae seemed utterly unfazed by Emperor Toba’s declining health.
The court called in a reputable astrologer to assess his health. The astrologer discovered an evil spirit had cursed the Emperor. The court summoned the highest priests and monks available, hoping to aid him with their prayers.
They could not cure him.
So the court called the astrologer back to pinpoint who this corrupted spirit could be in hopes of terminating it. The astrologer spoke without hesitation, “It’s your beloved Tamamo no Mae. She’s a fox in disguise plotting to take your throne.” The Emperor was reluctant to accept these words.
Meanwhile, Tamamo no Mae stood outside frolicking in a field throughout the conversation.
The council of priests devised a plot to prove her guilt. The court would force Tamamo no Mae to participate in a holy ritual that even the sturdiest fiendish spirits would lose composure.
It wasn’t easy to convince her to participate. Eventually, the priests assured her that partaking would increase her standing in the court. She agreed.
Tamamo no Mae held herself with utmost serenity throughout the ritual until the very moment it was time to send everyone off. A bushy tail sprouted from beneath her dress. Then another. And another.
The nine-tailed fox scurried out of the hall and hurdled through the nearest window. The Emperor’s face ignited with fury. He ordered her immediate execution, deploying 80,000 troops to rid the countryside of Tamamo no Mae.
The fox was cunning and brilliant, however. She narrowly escaped the clutches of the Emperor’s army until they grew weary. The fox continued to abduct women and children throughout the Tochigi prefecture. The troops couldn’t handle another day.
Only two soldiers had the tenacity to press onward. They honed their skills and fiercely debated tactics.
On a fateful evening, one of the soldiers had a prophetic dream. The fox pleaded, “Tomorrow I will lose my life to you. Please, save me!” He refused.
The next day, the fox appeared, and they shot her down with two arrows. One through the neck, the other through her flank. The other soldier then slashed her with his blade.
Emperor Toba and his successor Konoe died shortly after, leaving no heir to the throne. The four major clans of Japan began to spill the blood of rival families in a succession dispute for the throne.
After two failed rebellions, the Minamoto clan initiated the Genpei War, slaying the Taira clan. Minamoto no Yoritomo was ushered in as Japan’s first Shogun. From the ashes of the prodigious Kyuubi no Kitsune, the Kamakura Shogunate was born.
But the death of Tamamo no Mae didn’t end her legacy. Her spirit lived on as a murderous stone. The stone was called Sessho Seki. It discharged poisonous gas and killed anyone who touched it.
Many years later, a Monk named Genno listened to her memoir, purging the area of the Sessho Seki. He granted Tamamo no Mae forgiveness and unbound her from the stone. At last, Tamamo no Mae was nothing more than a spirit in the sky.
Anyone else feeling Salem Witch Trial vibes off of that story? I expand on that for Delphox’s origins.
At the core of the narrative, love devoured the strength of the Emperor. It’s a tale of vulnerability and a metaphor for the painstaking process of falling in love, how our circling thoughts sap away our sanity and how a romantic evening often pivots into a cloudy head the morning after.
It’s also a zealous cautionary tale about the mystic powers of a sly and cunning foxy lady. We adore those in the West.
That’s the legacy of the majestic Ninetales. While your average fox is said to become careless after a night of drinking, a nine-tailed fox can hold form for entire lifetimes. She’s capable of eliciting war, famine, and tearing apart a myriad of empires in the span of her lifetime. Typical kitsune folklore is child’s play compared to the great Kyuubi no Kitsune.
As far as background Pokémon lore goes, Ninetales reigns supreme as the mightiest of all foxes.