公達に 狐ばけたり 宵の春
kindachi ni kitsune baketari yoi no haru
The fox Changes himself into a young prince; The spring evening.
(Buson, translated by R.H. Blyth.)
In just a few words, this haiku describes a hazy, twilight world where fox spirits play and have adventures.
What makes a haiku special is the use of kigo, which is a word or phrase that evokes a particular season. It’s sometimes so culturally-specific as to be imperceptible to Western readers, such as the sound of a crackling fire (without direct reference to the fire itself!) to indicate winter. Other times, like in this fox haiku, Buson just comes right out and says it.
Due to the fact that Japanese doesn’t specify whether something is plural or not, we don’t know how many foxes are out there transforming into noblemen. It might be a single fox, a group of foxes or every fox ever. Folklore is clear on the matter though — it’s every fox ever.
My personal favourite translator of haiku is R. H. Blyth (1898 – 1964) and he only got away with it by translating as best he could and then writing an explanatory paragraph. In the case of that well-known haiku about the frog and the old pond, he did two translations years apart and wrote an essay about it just to make sure he got everything.
Overall, the features of Japanese and the kigo combine to give not just a sense of timelessness, but of a specific moment in the cycle of seasons. For what it’s worth, this haiku dates to 1777. You’re (probably) not thinking of the same hazy spring nights in rural Japan as Buson, but the poem taps into the same dream-like feeling.
(Also? You can forget about the whole 5-7-5 syllable thingy in English. Japanese ‘syllables’ are counted in terms of how many kana are needed, so it’s only loosely connected to the Western concept.)
Foxes are sneaky — we’ve always known this, regardless of nationality. In a fable attributed to Aesop, you can find a fox who tricks crows out of cheese. In Japan, they can shoot fire from their tails (yes, plural), possess women, transform into humans, become invisible at will and fly. Everything you claimed in your last job interview, in fact.
Choosing a particular story about fox spirits is difficult, because there are a lot of general descriptions and few specifics. However, in terms of iconic value, nothing beats Lafcadio Hearn:
“The invisible fox, as already stated, attaches himself to persons. Like a Japanese servant, he belongs to the household. But if a daughter of that household marry, the fox not only goes to that new family, following the bride, but also colonises his kind in all those families related by marriage or kinship with the husband’s family. Now every fox is supposed to have a family of seventy-five—neither more, nor less than seventy-five—and all these must be fed. So that although such foxes, like ghosts, eat very little individually, it is expensive to have foxes. The fox-possessors (kitsune-mochi) must feed their foxes at regular hours; and the foxes always eat first—all the seventy-live. As soon as the family rice is cooked in the kama (a great iron cooking-pot), the kitsune-mochi taps loudly on the side of the vessel, and uncovers it. Then the foxes rise up through the floor. And although their eating is soundless to human ear and invisible to human eye, the rice slowly diminishes. Wherefore it is fearful for a poor man to have foxes.”
Frankly, I love the way Hearn describes these events in such a matter-of-fact manner. He dares you not to accept that these invisible foxes are just as real as ghosts and then goes into a lecture on the immorality of keeping fox spirits in one’s household. This is a wonderful chapter (albeit with a few problematic sentences due to its age).
Foxes are also popular characters at festivals. In the photograph at the top, you can see a fox dancer at the Kawagoe Festival. They tend to be my favourite dancers — androgynous and graceful, unlike the comedic tanuki.
THE FOX AND THE HAIKU
The legend behind the foxes in the haiku is so powerful that you can’t ignore its effect in the haiku. The haiku format works to provide a beautiful, timeless experience in a very short space of time.
What do you think of the haiku I chose? Are there other (magical or youkai-themed) ones you like better? Let me know in the comments.
Foxes on a Trampoline (I mean, really, I just figured this would be your kind of thing…)