Bookiyo-e: The Fox-Woman Kuzunoha leaving Her Child

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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Fox-Woman Kuzunoha leaving Her Child, 1890

The story of Kuzunoha begins in the tenth century with a a young nobleman named Abe no Yasuna. One day he is visiting Shinoda shrine in Settsu province. On his way, he encounters a military commissioner who is hunting foxes for their livers, which are used in traditional medicine. Yasuna decides to fight the hunter and wins, but is wounded in the process. Immediately after his victory, he sets a white fox free from a trap the hunter set. Shortly after, a beautiful woman named Kuzunoha comes and tends to his wounds and helps him home. Without Yasuna knowing, this woman is the same white fox he set free.
In Japanese myth, foxes are able to shapeshift into human form with the use of different leaves on their heads for transformation, hence "Kuzu" or Kudzu leaf, from her name "Kuzunoha." Yasuna falls in love with Kuzunoha and then they later marry. She bears him a child named Abe no Seimei, who later becomes a prominent onmyooji, or spiritual astrologist for the Emperor. Several years later Kuzunoha is viewing some chrysanthemums and Seimei sees the tip of her tail. After her true identity is revealed, she prepares to depart back to the forest. Before she leaves, she writes a farewell poem on a screen, asking her husband to come visit her in Shinoda forest, where he first saved her. Yasuna and Seimei search for her and she appears to them in the form of a fox. Kuzunoha then reveals that she is the kami, or God, of Shinoda shrine and bestows upon Seimei a gift of being able to comprehend the language of beasts. Abe no Seimei cured Emperor Toba of a special spell cast by Tamamo no Mae, the Emperor's favorite concubine. Tamamo no Mae was supposedly a nine tail fox herself. 

Relative to Japanese mythology, foxes often are portrayed as malicious and dangerous. But the fox is also revered as guardians of the rice crop and also the messenger of the god of harvests, Inari. It is said that when a fox turns 100 years old, it can not only assume human form, but can possess humans as well. When a fox turns 1000, it will turn gold, and grow nine tails.

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