Popular characters in Japanese myths and folklore, foxes, or kitsune, are considered intelligent, magical and associated with the Shinto spirit Inari. Zenko are the foxes specifically associated with Inari, while yako, or field foxes, are known as mischief-makers. Known shape shifters, foxes usually take the form of young girls, old men, but most often, that of stunningly beautiful, beguiling women. As the number of tails indicates the level of wisdom and magical prowess, the nine-tailed fox is considered especially powerful. Tamamo-no Mae is one such nine-tailed fox, or Kyubi no kitsune, of particular note. This enduring tale of Tamamo-no Mae and the Emperor Konoe serves as a cautionary tale about these mystical animals.
Hokusai, Nine Tail Fox and Songoku. Hokusai Manga, 1815-1868. Woodblock Print.
During the 12th century, a beautiful girl rose from the servant class to become the favorite courtesan of the Emperor Konoe. Known as Tamamo-no Mae (meaning “jewel maiden”), her beauty surpassed mere physical appearance: her sharp intelligence and expansive knowledge of seemingly every subject stunned the members of the Imperial court. She could answer any question with ease, while her beauty never faltered. Understandably, the emperor kept her by his side at all times.
Toyokuni III, Kyo: The Nine Tailed Fox Disguised as Tamamo no Mae, from the series The 53 Stations of the Tokaido. 1857. Woodblock Print.
In time, Emperor Konoe fell terribly ill. While many were consulted and innumerable prayers were made, the emperor’s health continued to decline. The court astrologer, Abe-no Yasuchika, claimed that it was no normal ailment, but magical enchantment that was causing his illness. Abe-no Yasuchika suspicion stemmed from a windy evening, when the candles were extinguished in a strong gust. Though the room should have fallen into darkness, rays of light emanated from the head of the emperor’s beloved beauty. The astrologer urged the removal of Tamamo-no Mae from the emperor’s side. Yet, ever weaker, the emperor refused, unwilling to give up his enchanting companion. In an effort to save the ailing emperor, Ab-no Yasuchika built an altar and beckoned the suspect courtesan to pray with him. She tried to resist the ceremony, but was unwillingly ushered to the shrine. Upon reaching it, the astrologer was proven correct, for Tamamo-no Mae transformed into a golden-haired nine-tailed fox. Her true identity revealed, she flew up into the sky and off to the plain of Nasu.
Horiyoshi III, Nine-Tailed Fox, c. 2010. Drawing.
The emperor’s loyal warriors Kazusanosuke and Miuranosuke set off to hunt Tamamo-no Mae. While the clever fox briefly evaded the hunters, she appeared Miuranosuke’s dream, foretelling her death and begging for mercy. The following day, Tamamo-no Mae died at the arrow of the brave Miuranosuke. Slain, she transformed herself into a rock which would forevermore be known as the sesshoseki or “death stone.” Legend has it that a glance at this stone is dangerous, but contact with its cold surface spells certain death.
The stone housed the restless spirit of Tamamo-no Mae until one day the Buddhist priest Gen, paused for a rest by sesshoseki. She rose angrily from her stone, threatening the priest. He urged her to seek salvation and performed a special spiritual ritual to free her. Tamamo-no Mae agreed stop haunting the sesshoseki.
Emperor Konoe was not the first ruler to fall under the spell of Tamamo-no Mae. Tales of her deceits trace back to China: known as Daji, she was the concubine of King Zhou, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty. Legend holds her bewitchment accountable for the fall of the Shang Dynasty. It is said that she fled to ancient India and assumed the identity of Lady Kayo, the beautiful courtesan of the crown prince Banzoku. With her at his side, he decapitated 1000 men. Towards the end of the 8th century BC, the fox returned to China as the cruel Baosi, the favored concubine of King You of the Zhou dynasty. This powerful fox did not arrive in Japan until the 8th century, when she tricked her way onto a ship heading back from Tang China.
Sesshoseki today, in Tochigi Prefecture. Photo by Travis Suzaka.
The story of Tamamo-no Mae and Emperor Konoe was likely historically tied to Emperor Konoe’s beloved courtesan Fujiwara-no Tokuko, an elegant and accomplished woman who exercised an overwhelming and wicked influence over the emperor. In Japan today, this famous myth is commemorated in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture. Surrounded by volcanic mountains, famous for their sulfur hot springs, the sesshoseki remains, marked with a wooden sign. Ronin Gallery’s own Travis Suzaka visited the final resting place of the famous nine-tailed fox. Based on the pictures, the site appears a little eerie, no?
Sesshoseki today, to the far left behind the wooden sign. Photo by Travis Suzaka.