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Myōbu, the Celestial Guardian

Ewa Nowogorski

You might have seen white foxes wearing red scarves in Japanese anime. Or maybe you have seen statues of 2 foxes in front of the entrance to shrines during your visit to Japan. These foxes are called Myobu, and they are celestial guardians.

Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore, and they can either be good or bad. Good, guardian foxes are usually portrayed as white or light-colored. Bad foxes are portrayed as black or some other dark color, and they are mischievous.

Gods in Japanese are referred to as “Inari”, and foxes are the messengers of Inari, carrying out their will and guarding their resting place. Those who are loyal and faithful to their gods receive the title of Myobu. This title originates from a woman who had this name. During Emperor Ichijō’s time in power (980–1011), there was a court lady whose name was Shinno-Myōbu. She was a worshipper of Inari, and one day she went to the shrine at Fushimi, Kyoto, to pray for 7 days. After this, she managed to gain a high title as consort. She claimed her good luck was due to the white foxes guarding the shrine and so the name of myōbu was given to them.

Foxes definitely have a different image in Japan than they do in America. For the most part, foxes in Japanese folklore are honest and dutiful, but foxes in America have a reputation for being sneaky tricksters that steal small livestock and ruin the lives of farmers.

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