The Japanese Inari and Her Foxes: The History of the Spirit and the Forms that it takes
Before getting into the details of the kami known as Inari, let it be made clear what a kami is in the Japanese culture. The word “kami” itself translates to words related to god, deity, or divinity but it is unanimously accepted by the Japanese as spirits. These kami spirits are considered to be elements of the landscape, forces of nature, or even spirits of those who have departed the physical world. Traditionally though, only incredibly unique leaders and individuals are believed to be able to turn into a kami upon death. An example of these kinds of people is sensational leaders and great Emperors.
Not all kami are good news though because they are of nature. Since they are of nature, they exist with balance and this balance means that they are good and bad kami in the world. They believe in these good and evil spirits to the point that they even avoided facing building towards the direction known as kimon to ward off evil spirits because this direction was thought to be the demon gate’s direction. These kami are believed to be manifestations of the energy that fuels the universe. They are hidden from the physical world and can only be unlocked by following something the Japanese refer to as the way of the kami. Due to Japan’s inherent spiritually though, they were able to be in harmony with the kami early on.
Usually, entities like the kami are depicted as a certain gender or with none at all. In the case of the Inari, it has been depicted as all genders. In some works of art, the Inari is an old man who is sitting on a pile of rice while two foxes stand guard beside him. In other artworks, the Inari is shown as a beautiful fox woman or even as Dakiniten, who is a Japanese version of the Hindu Dakini which is a known Buddhist deity. The Inari is associated with the dakini because she is showcased as a female goddess that rides a flying white fox. In whatever case, His or Her foxes never leave His or Her side which is why the Inari is known as the kami of foxes or kitsune.
The exact origin details of the Inari and the worshipping of the Inari are not clear and precise but the date when the Inari Mountain shrine was founded is the accepted date of when the worshipping of this kami started which was in 711 AD. Despite this acceptance, some scholars have found artifacts that hint that the people of Japan have long been paying tribute to Inari because the artifacts found were dated to be from the late 5th century. Kazuo Higo is one of the scholars that believe that the Inari had been worshiped way before the founding of the shrine on Inari Mountain and he believed that the Hata clan was the first clan to formally worship the Inari as the agricultural kami.
If you are to base it on scriptures and writings though, the first recorded use of Inari in writing was found in a scripture known as Ruiju Kokushi which was written in 892 AD. In this scripture, the word Inari was highly related to “carrying rice” which lead scholars to believe that this is where the name Inari originated from. In Japanese, the word “ine-nari” means growing rice and it is believed to be the origin of the name Inari because the Inari is also known to be the kami for rice. Aside from it being the kami for rice, it is also known to be the kami of fertility, tea, sake, agriculture, foxes, and a whole lot of other things. To simplify things, the Inari is the kami that is in-charge of worldly success and general prosperity which is what makes it one of the major kami that is respected and worshiped by Japan.
By the time the Heian period came, the worshipping of the Inari had grown tremendously. It had reached the religion of Buddhism and this claim was solidified by Emperor Saga presentation of the To-Ji temple to the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, a man named Kukai. This was an important event because, eventually, the designated protector of this temple of Buddhist would become Inari. This would also explain why there are certain Buddhist temples that are devoted to Inari.
Its fame continued to grow and as a result, in 827, the Inari was granted the lower fifth rank. Coincidentally, this promotion in importance fueled another wave of growth to the fame and reputation of Inari. An emperor named Suzaku was a believer of Inari and he worshiped her for aid and guidance during the time of rebellions in Japan. They overcame all these rebellions and Emperor Suzaku gave thanks to Inari by promoting her to the top rank, which officially made her one of the main kami that is worshiped in Japan.
When the Edo period came, Inari worship had spread even more throughout Japan and this growth has attributed to the movement of the feudal lords of Japan in this period in time. Also, by this time, the Inari had become the patron of blacksmiths and warriors as well. Because of this, you will see several castles that have Inari shrines in them.
It didn’t stop there as more and more people started seeing the Inari as a patron of their own needs. Actors and escorts started to pay tribute to the Inari because the Inari shrines were so near to their quarters. People started praying to Inari and referring to her as a deity of luck and prosperity. Others even started worshipping Inari as the “Desire-Fulfilling Inari”. With that being said, it was obvious that the influence of the Inari had grown to the point where people saw it as a giver of miracles and all other things.
The Shrines Devoted to the Japanese Inari and the Offerings They Give
Considering all the discussion on the growth of Inari’s influence and worshippers, it should not be a surprise at all to find out that there are 2970 shrines that are dedicated to the worshipping of Inari. This number only accounts for Shinto shrines and the shrines that are registered under religious corporations. Acknowledging the existence of Buddhist shrines devoted to Inari and the several modern companies that have Inari shrines in their office vicinities, this number should increase dramatically if you consider all the other shrines devoted to Inari.
The way these shrines are made and decorated is practically the same for all Inari shrines. All Inari shrine entrances are decorated with kitsune statues of different sizes. An interesting fact about these statues is that it is made uniquely. No statue of a kitsune is the same as another kitsune statue. These statues are usually offered wearing red bibs known as "Yod Ere Kake". It is red because this is the color that has been accepted as the color representing Inari. They are all also marked by at least one vermilion torii which is the gate looking structure used to decorate pathways to the shrine.
There are 2970 Inari shrines in Japan but there are 11 shrines that stand out above the rest. These shrines are the Kasama Inari Shrine found in Ibaraki, Namiyoke Inari Shrine found in Chuo, Taikodani Inari Shrine found in Shimane, Shiwa Inari Shrine found in Iwate, Takahashi Inari Shrine found in Kumamoto, Takayama Inari Shrine found in Aomori, Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine found in Osaka, Yakyu Inari Shrine found in Higashimurayama, Yutoku Inari Shrine found in Saga, Takekoma Inari Shrine found in Miyagi, and Fushimi Inari-Taisha found in Kyoto. Among these 11 shrines, the Fushimi Inari Shrine and the Takekoma Inari Shrine are the most known ones because they are the first ever and second Inari shrines in Japan, respectively. The Fushimi Inari Shrine is also the main shrine of worship in Japan for the Inari.
When people prayed and paid respects to the Inari through these shrines, they usually gave offerings like sake, rice, and other food to appease the kitsune, who acted as the Inari’s messengers. They wanted to please the messenger because they believed that they could help persuade the Inari to give them what they are praying for. Fried tofu was a popular offering because it is believed that this is the favorite food of Japanese foxes and since the kitsune are foxes, they figured that it would be a great offering to give.
The Japanese Inari and Her Foxes’ Presence in Mythology
With the fame and recognition that the Inari has received from the people, one could easily guess that there are a lot of tales about the Inari in Japanese mythology. Each story showcases a side of the Inari which would mean that there are a lot of stories that involve the Inari because it is a kami of several things in this world.
It might be impossible to discuss all tales that include Inari because of a number of stories that would fall under this category. Luckily, if you really want to read about all Inari tales, you can easily search the net for these incredible stories. There are, however, some stories that stand out above the rest because of the events that happen in the story.
A perfect example of such stories is the tale of the Inari that involves the Shinto goddess of food named Ukemochi. According to this particular myth, Ukemochi once vomited rice to give to the kami of the moon for a banquet. Since the rice was vomited the moon kami named Tsukiyoki took offense to this and this led the moon kami to kill Ukemochi instantly. The death of the goddess of food made the body of the goddess turn into all kinds of foods and animals that are related to agriculture. Ukemochi also happened to be married to Inari (showcased as a man in this myth) so when Ukemochi was killed, Inari took over the role as a god of food which also led Him to be recognized as the kami for agriculture.
Stories like this are important because of the power of influence it holds over people. For example, because you know about this story now, you somewhat have a better understanding on why the Inari because of the kami of agriculture. The same concept applies to all other things that the kami guides people with. The explanation found in these stories, though possibly fictional, give the people the reason and logic they need to believe in the Inari.
Overall, it can clearly be seen that the Inari has had a major effect on the Japanese culture. It is and will forever be known as a good kami and one of the best at it because of all the people this spirit has helped throughout the centuries, according to scriptures. It is no surprise why the Inari has gained that much respect from people, even in modern times like today. It symbolizes all things good in the world which gives the people who believe in the Inari hope that there is always better days to come.