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Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox. Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore; in English, kitsune refers to them in this context. Stories depict them as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. Foremost among these is the ability to assume human form. While some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others—as foxes in folklore often do—other stories portray them as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives.
Foxes and human beings lived close together in ancient Japan; this companionship gave rise to legends about the creatures. Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami or spirit, and serve as its messengers. This role has reinforced the fox's supernatural significance. The more tails a kitsune has — they may have as many as nine — the older, wiser, and more powerful it is. Because of their potential power and influence, some people make offerings to them as to a deity.
It is widely agreed that many fox myths in Japan can be traced to China, Korea, or India. Chinese folk tales tell of fox spirits called huli jing that may have up to nine tails, or Kyūbi no Kitsune in Japanese. Many of the earliest surviving stories are recorded in the Konjaku Monogatari, an 11th-century collection of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese narratives.
There is debate whether the kitsune myths originated entirely from foreign sources or are in part an indigenous Japanese concept dating as far back as the fifth century BC. Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D.; the only things imported from China or Korea were the kitsune's negative attributes. He states that, according to a 16th-century book of records called the Nihon Ryakki, foxes and human beings lived close together in ancient Japan, and he contends that indigenous legends about the creatures arose as a result. Inari scholar Karen Smyers notes that the idea of the fox as seductress and the connection of the fox myths to Buddhism were introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese stories, but she maintains that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japan.