Episode 486 – Outfoxed!

This week: how did Japan’s most popular god develop a following around the country, and why is that god–Inari–associated with everything from farming to fire prevention? How come you see Inari worship in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines alike? And what does all of this have to do with foxes, anyway?

A fox statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine. The whole ‘is Inari a fox’ thing is, well, complicated.
The top of Mt. Inari. You can climb the mountain pretty easily; there’s even a train station across the street from the shrine.
The Reikozuka, or Spirit Fox Mound, of Toyokawa Inari.
Taira no Kiyomori confronted by an apparition of Inari, by Kuniyoshi.



We’ve done a lot of different kinds of history on this podcast, from biographies to social movements to art styles to everything in-between. But one thing we have never done before is a biography of a God. And now, at long last, it’s time to change that.

This week, I want to talk about one of Japan’s most ubiquitous religious figures, one with a long and absolutely fascinating history–chiefly because Inari, it turns out, is one of Japan’s most amorphous religious figures.

First, a quick note on terminology. I’m going to refer to Inari as a ‘god’ throughout this episode. That’s obviously my attempt to render the Japanese word kami–which could also be thought of as types of nature spirits. I simply want to note that ‘god’, in this context, should not have the kind of ‘omnipotent’ implication that it does in English–kami as conceived of in the Japanese religious tradition are powerful spirits and have a real impact on the world, but they are not all powerful.

For Inari specifically, things get a bit more confusing because as we’ll see, there’s some cross religious appeal as well. Inari worship is not just confined to Japan’s Shinto shrines–more than a few temples have Inari spirits on the grounds. And Inari has taken on some Buddhist meaning as well as a sort of protector deity–often referred to as a guardian spirit or as the incarnation of a Bodhisattva, a sort of saintly figure in Buddhism, as a result.

Again, for ease of reference, I’m going to use the word ‘god’ here, but I want you to be aware of just how complex that word is in this context. Inari worship means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Inari specifically has also been a lot of different things for a lot of different people–one of the interesting things about this specific god is that Inari does not have a very definite form. There are Inari manifestations described as young and as old, as masculine, feminine, or not of any definite gender. There’s not much in the way of fixed descriptors attached to the god at all.

But in a certain sense, that’s a part of the god’s popularity. Karen Smyers, in her seminal anthropological study of Inari worship in Japan, estimated that one out of every three Shinto Shrines in the country is devoted to Inari worship–and that number doesn’t include all the smaller Inari shrines without fulltime priests in local villages, or individual Inari altars maintained by families in their homes. This would add several thousand more to the official total–Inari is by pretty much any estimate Japan’s most popular god by far.

Why? What does Inari…do, so to speak? That’s an easy question to answer for some of Japan’s many divinities–Amaterasu is all about the sun, Konohanasakuya about fire and volcanoes, all that good stuff.

Inari is…well, not that easy to sum up. And here’s where we get into problems from the jump.

So, if you read Japan’s classic works of creation mythology like the Kojiki or Nihon Shoki–as, of course, we all do regularly for fun–you’ll notice Inari doesn’t appear in any of them. Japan’s most popular god is not a part of the complex divine genealogy going back to the creator gods Izanami and Izanagi.

The first mention of Inari is not in the Kojiki, but in a separate document called the Yamashiro Fudoki, a record of the culture and legends of Yamashiro province (now the southern part of Kyoto prefecture in central Japan). The Yamashiro Fudoki, which dates to the early 700s (around the same time the Kojiki is being compiled, describes Inari’s origins as interrelated with one of Japan’s most famous early aristocratic families–the Hata clan. Specifically, one day a distant Hata clan ancestor by the name of Irogu was using rice cakes for target practice with his bow. One of the rice cakes he shot suddenly took flight and zoomed up a nearby mountain, the southernmost of the Higashiyama chain of mountains on the eastern outskirts of what’s now Kyoto.

Irogu, naturally somewhat concerned by this unusual occurrence, followed the flying rice cake to the top of the mountain, where he discovered that at the spot it had landed, rice was growing–or, in classical Japanese, ine-nari.

The characters used to write that phrase are not the ones used for inari now. The ine (or ina) meaning rice is the same, but the ‘nari’ has changed from the word for ‘to grow’ into something like ‘to carry.’ That linguistic shift happened, from what we can tell, some time in the 800s.

Anywho, Irogu was apparently and rather naturally impressed by this magical mountaintop that seemed able to produce flying rice cakes that could grow more rice–he and his descendants began the practice of taking tree saplings from the top of the mountain and planting them in their homes. If the sapling flourished, the family would prosper–and if it did not, well, that’s not great.

And eventually one of Irogu’s descendants, Hata no Nakatsuie, founded a shrine at this mountain in 711 CE. The mountain became known as “Mt. Inari”, and said shrine is now Fushimi Inari Shrine, the single largest inari shrine in the country and probably one of the most famous shinto shrines in all of Japan.

In reality, from what we can tell, religious activity at Mt. Inari was going on well before the ‘official’ founding in 711. A religious site from the Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 CE) was discovered near the mountain, and it’s also home to two kofun, or burial mounds, dating several hundred years before the official founding. But this is the shrine’s foundational story.

Thus Inari became what we call the ujigami, or family god, of the Hata family. As the name implies, Inari has since been associated with rice–but given the centrality of agriculture to the early Japanese economy, Inari was also a commercial god overseeing the prosperity of the Hata clan in general.

Now, we’ve mentioned the Hata few times before on the podcast–they were one of Japan’s aristocratic clans, who from early days had subordinated themselves to the Japanese emperors and thus enjoyed prestige and favor from them. And they were the ones who popularized Inari worship. It’s even been theorized that, as was likely the case with most of Japan’s aristocratic families, the Hata were descended from Korean aristocrats who fled that peninsula’s wars to Japan–and that Inari was originally a Korean god whose name and role was adapted to Japanese.

We honestly simply can’t be sure where Inari comes from, just that Inari worship was originally associated with the Hata.

However, Inari probably would not have moved beyond the Hata clan and their regional powerbase in Yamashiro, except for an important change in Japan’s political geography. Japan’s early emperors had relocated the capital every few years for reasons that are…well, complicated, and we can’t get into them here. But starting in the 700s and modeled after the practice of Imperial China, the court began to move towards more permanent settlement–and eventually, in 794, they settled on what became Kyoto, with Mt. Inari conveniently just 8.5 kilometers (a bit over 5 miles) to the south.

Being that close to the center of the imperial court was, naturally enough, a big boost to Inari’s profile, and thus the Hata clan protector God began to take on more of a varying role, and to move beyond the lands of the Hata clan on the southern edge of what’s now Kyoto.

And this is where we get to another tricky aspect of Japanese religion. When, today, we say that x is the god of y–that Thor is the god of Thunder, that Aphrodite is the goddess of love, or whatever–we tend to think of that meaning as being very fixed. But in reality, in a lot of polytheistic societies, the role the gods perform, so to speak, was and is pretty amorphous–they would change to fit the needs of their worshipers, rather than the worshipers getting a new god.

This was and is true of a lot of polytheistic religions, of course, but it’s particularly evident in the history of Shinto and with gods like Inari. The rather broad nature of Inari’s purview–rice, and more broadly general prosperity–made it pretty easy to ‘shift’ Inari into other contexts.

Which, ok, that’s very abstract–what does it mean, exactly? Well, for example, in 823 the emperor Saga set up one of Japan’s most well known Buddhist monks–Kuukai–with a new monastery at Touji. Kukai, in turn, named Inari as guardian god of the new temple–a common practice at the time.

For most of Japan’s religious history, Buddhism and Shinto existed not as separate religions but as interwoven belief structures–the idea that either the gods themselves or the people were Buddhist or Shinto simply wasn’t a thing.

Instead, the Shinto gods and the figures of the Buddhist pantheon were described as complexly interrelated entities, with (for example) prominent Shinto gods being described as local incarnations of powerful Buddhist religious or historical figures. In this context, it made perfect sense for Kukai to ‘tap into’ the Inari religious cult that had existed in the area for centuries in order to protect his new temple (and, if you’re cynical about these things, to promote it by tying it to an already popular religious figure in the area).

Thus, Inari became a figure of Buddhist worship as well–to the point that some later Buddhist texts invented an entire Buddhist origin story for the god. In these tellings, Inari and Kukai had known each other in a past life as students of the Sakyamuni Buddha back in India 1000 years before Toji was built, and had vowed to be born in a far off land overseas to propagate the Buddha’s teachings. And lo and behold, in Kukai’s own lifetime an eight-foot tall man came to him at Toji, carrying a bundle of rice in one hand and a cedar branch in another. Kukai, recognizing his old friend from a past life, embrace Inari, and Inari in turn became the protector of Toji and of Kukai’s Buddhist teachings more generally.

So already, from the jump, we have Inari’s ‘meaning’, so to speak, changing to fit the religious needs of the time. And indeed, Inari proved a pretty versatile god; when, in 827, the emperor Junna became ill, the court responded by bestowing Inari with a rank in the elaborate system used to grade members of the imperial court aristocracy (junior fifth rank, if you’re wondering), hoping thereby to flatter Inari and convince the god to intercede and cure the emperor.

And lo, Junna did recover–and bestowing court rank on Inari became something of a staple solution to courtly problems. By 942, Emperor Suzaku bumped Inari all the way to senior first rank, the very top of the chart, in gratitude for the god’s help (it was believed) in quelling a provincial rebellion–a rank Inari retains today.

As a result of all this attention from the imperial court, and growing ties to the buddhist world, and of course an original purview that was quite popular–everyone needs rice and good commerce–Inari was, by the start of what we might call the middle ages in Japan, big business. The god had both an elite following thanks to that court rank, and a popular one as well–both because of Inari’s elite associations, and because of the god’s religious role. Inari’s position as a commerce god and as a protector of Kukai’s sect of Shingon Buddhism–which, during the Middle Ages, was very focused on esoteric rituals that could provide this-worldly benefit rather than emphasizing future lives–meant that Inari was, for lack of a better term, a worldly god.

In other words, someone you could go to for help with more mundane concerns: your crops, your family business, your desire to succeed in your career, whatever. And those are concerns people have always had: so if you’re a god, it’s a good business to get into.

Fushimi Inari Shrine was, of course, one of the primary beneficiaries of this growing popularity: it became a major pilgrimage site, as well as a popular destination for the cultural activities that were by the middle ages associated with religion in Japan (drinking and poetry parties, in particular). There was even an active market for souvenirs from the shrine–specifically cedar branches taken from the trees atop Mt. Inari, the climbing of which remains an act of sacred meditation to this day (though to be clear, you can’t just grab branches off the trees anymore. Don’t be that guy.)

Fushimi Inari shrine itself fell and hard times in the 1400s and 1500s–as did most of Kyoto, to be fair. The shrine burned to the ground in 1468 during the fighting of the Onin War, and its sacred treasures were only saved because the monks of Touji–knowing Inari’s status as their protector deity–offered to safeguard them until the shrine could be rebuilt.

This took decades, and was largely financed by monks of the Shingon sect–showing once again the interrelationship between Shinto and Buddhism, particularly around Inari worship.

However, despite hard times for that shrine in particular, Inari in general had something of a boom during the late middle ages in Japan, and especially the Sengoku Era. Which, frankly, is not hugely surprising–that period was one of massive commercialization for Japan’s economy, particularly in the Kansai region where Kyoto (and the major commercial hub that would become Osaka) are located. In those circumstances, it’s not terribly surprising that a commerce god would do well.

Inari also picked up some pretty important devotees–Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the warlord who eventually reunified Japan after a century of civil war, was a major Inari devotee. He donated a great deal of money to the shrine–its roumon, the massive main gate at the front of the shrine, was built with money Hideyoshi donated in 1589 to celebrate the recovery of his mother from illness after he prayed to Inari to intercede.

Fushimi Inari was not the only beneficiary of largesse from Hideyoshi, either–he also commissioned a statue for Toyokawa Inari (about which we will talk more in a second) of Fudo Myo’o, or Acala, a Buddhist guardian deity with whom Inari was often correlated.

After Hideyoshi, of course, came the Edo period: the age of the Tokugawa shoguns, and the zenith of Japanese “bureaucratic feudalism.” This was an age of urbanization and commercialization, and one where Inari worship flourished as commoners and samurai moved into the growing economic and administrative centers of the castle towns–and took the ever flexible Inari with them.

The god’s popularity had by this time spread well beyond the Kansai area–carried to the provinces by visitors to the ancient capital at Kyoto, and by Kansai business types headed that way for work. Inari shrines large and small were everywhere: one common folk saying of the edo period was: chounai ni iseya inari ni inu no kuso, which translates to something like, “In the big city (Edo, in this case), Ise merchants and inari shrines are as common as dog droppings.”

Inari had once again adapted to new contexts: in cities like Edo, for example, Inari was often worshiped to prevent fires, and Oji Inari Shrine in the north end of the city would sell kites on its festival days to prevent fires.

But in the remote Tohoku area of northern Honshu, Inari became a fishing god, associated with prosperous catches for fishermen. Meanwhile, for samurai families Inari was seen as a protector deity of warriors, with Inari shrines often being placed in the northeast quadrant of castles–that direction, called the kimon, was considered in auspicious.

Whatever form people worshipped Inari in, the concerns the god was associated with were all very ‘this-worldly’–be that not having your house burned down, or succeeding commercially, catching enough fish, protecting your home from bad spirits, whatever. There wasn’t, to put it another way, much in the way of concern with what’s called ‘soteriology’ in religious studies–the nature of other-worldly salvation. Instead, the question was, “what can Inari do for me today?”

And again, I really want to note that it’s not even appropriate to think of Inari as a “Shinto god”, either. There’s a great deal of Inari worship in Buddhism as well. Perhaps the classic example, one of the other great centers of Inari worship, is Toyokawa Inari–a popular name for Myougonji.

As that name might clue you in on, Myogonji/Toyokawa Inari is a Buddhist temple (that’s what the ‘ji’ at the end means). Specifically, it’s a Soto sect Zen temple, located in Toyokawa city in Aichi prefecture in central Honshu.

Japanese Buddhism, of course, has its own complex pantheon of Buddhas like Yakushi or Dainichi, as well as Boddhisattvas like Kannon or Monju. But Inari is not one of them, and the relationship between Inari and Soto sect Zen Buddhism is far more recent.

The story goes back to Giin, a monk from the 1200s and a student of the founder of Soto sect Zen in Japan, Dougen. In 1264 Giin decided to head to China, to present to the monks of the Soto lineage there (called Caodong in Chinese). Upon his return home he (according to the temple’s official explanation of events) had a wondrous vision. I’ll quote here from the temple’s own historical pamphlet as translated by Karen Smyers:

“In 1267, on [Giin’s] return to Japan, he beheld a wondrous appearance: a vision of a deity seated upon a white fox, carrying rice, and bearing a wish-fulfilling jewel in one hand. The figure recited a mystical for- mula: “On shi ra bat ta ni ri un so wa ka.”The meaning of these syllables is: “When this spell is chanted, the faith in me reaches every- where, and by the true power of the Buddhist precepts, evil and misfortune will be abolished and luck and wisdom attained, suffering removed and comfort achieved, and pain transmitted into delight.” This experience moved Kangan deeply. When he returned to Japan, he carved an image of the form he had seen and worshiped it as a protective deity. It was transmitted over the generations and was enshrined and worshiped here at the founding of this temple, Myogonji.”

This story, of course, is an article of faith–later academic studies of Toyokawa Inari have suggested that what actually happened is that the growing Zen temple incorporated an existing nearby Inari Shrine (Nishijima Inari), and in doing so created a mythology to ‘fit’ Inari, so to speak, into the narrative of Soto sect Zen.

The temple’s own history, you’ll note, does not name the deity in question as Inari–instead, the temple names the deity elsewhere as Dakiniten, a sort of Buddhist protector deity. But Inari already has a history of moonlighting, so to speak, as a Buddhist protector god–think of the whole thing with Kukai and Toji, for example. But of course, the fact that Myogonji is popularly called ‘Toyokawa Inari’ makes it pretty clear what most folks view the relationship as. Moreover, several of the symbols associated with Dakiniten’s manifestation are Inari related. There’s the rice, of course, which we’ve already covered, as well as the wish-fulfilling jewel. And then, of course, there’s the fox.

I imagine those of you with some familiarity with Inari have probably been wondering for a while now why I have avoided saying the word ‘fox’ for this whole episode up until now. After all, isn’t that Inari’s whole deal, being a fox?

Well….kind of. In popular imaginings, Inari is definitely depicted as a fox–I imagine that if you asked a random person on the street in Japan who was not an Inari devotee themselves, that’s what they’d say.

And certainly, Inari-related shrines and temples have a lot of fox imagery in them. You see fox statues all over Toyokawa Inari as well as Fushimi Inari, for example–indeed, for Toyokawa inari specifically if you look up a photo of the temple those fox statues are likely to be the first thing to come up.

But if you ask the leadership of Fushimi Inari, Toyokawa Inari, or any other place associated with Inari worship, they’ll all say the same thing: Inari is not a fox. Inari’s messengers are foxes. And indeed, many of the Shinto gods have specific animals associated with them: Takemikazuchi and deer, Hachiman and pigeons, Kumano and crows all serve as examples.

Specifically how Inari came to be associated with foxes is a matter of some historical debate: there are theories that the original deity associated with Mt. Inari was a fox, or that the association is actually derived from Buddhism–dakini, those protector gods, were often visualized in Indian Buddhism using women riding white winged foxes. There are etymological explanations around linguistic associations with the word kitsune–the Japanese word for a fox. We just don’t really know for sure, and there’s no way, to be honest, we’re going to have room to meaningfully unpack the issue here.

What the whole discussion around foxes and Inari does reveal, though, is a fascinating social distinction in Inari worship. While there is a ‘priestly class’ associated with ‘orthodox’ Inari worship–Shinto shrine priests from hereditary families, or Buddhist monastic initiates at temples associated with Inari–they do not really ‘control the narrative’, so to speak, of how Inari is worshiped.

There’s a strong tradition of Inari shamanism that is not passed down as a family tradition and which does not involve formalized study–instead, religious aesthetics would have direct experiences with the god and begin to draw followers themselves.

For example, in the feudal domain of Souma in what was then Mutsu Province in Northern Honshu, a mountain aesthetic named Sogaku was famous for channeling Inari and communing with fox spirits–after his death, his followers erected a shrine, Sougaku Inari, which proved extremely popular with the locals.

This sort of ‘inari divination’, where a spirit medium is possessed by Inari and claims to offer divination from the God directly, is a common feature of private Inari worship–though you won’t see it much in shrines or temples related to Inari.

If you’re wondering why, it’s because that sort of divination was both a threat to the authority of shrine priests–after all, who needs priests if you can talk to the god directly, and in Shinto in particular that sort of spirit channeling has some intense taboos around it–and because the shamans themselves could be a troublesome lot. For example, in the early 1800s one Toyoda Mitsugi took up the practice of Inari shamanism in the capital; after a series of unfortunate marriages, she took up residence in Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto and began working as an Inari shaman. Developing a following of other female disciples, she was for a time incredibly popular–famous for undergoing periods of intense aestheticism in order to properl channel the god–before falling afoul of the authorities in 1829. The specific charge against her (which resulted in her execution) was that she’d become a secret Christian–in fact, she had met some underground Christians in Kyoto and begun incorporating some of their symbolism into her practices, but appears to have been more interested in making use of Christian rituals with her Inari worship than with actually embracing Christianity itself.

Nor were these sort of mediums the only option for ‘non-mainstream’ Inari worship. Inari-ko, or “Inari fraternities”, were also a feature of religious life that was primarily controlled by lay adherents. For example, Ikeda city on the northern edge of Osaka was home to one such fraternity–run primarily by families of sake brewers who held festivals worshiping Inari in the hopes of good rice harvests for brewing and general commercial prosperity–as far back as 1791. By the 1830s, that Inari fraternity had spread to the neighboring rural areas around Ikeda, and its Hatsuuma festival–literally “first horse”–was a major draw for the area.

Hatsuuma, by the way, is a reference to a way of labeling days by the Chinese Zodiac. If you’re wondering how it works, the first day of a given year (either a lunar one back in the day or, in modern Japan, the solar year starting January 1) is the day of whatever that year’s zodiac animal is (so the rabbit, if it’s 2023). The days are then labeled by animal in the order of the 12 animals of the chinese zodiac (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig). So, January 2, 2023 is a “Dragon Day.” First horse is the first horse day of the month–in particular, the first horse day of the 2nd month is a common date for Inari festivals, because that whole story I told you at the start of the episode about the founding of Fushimi Inari shrine is supposed to have taken place on the first horse day of the 2nd month of 711 CE.

Anyway–circumstances like these gave Inari worship a life independent of the religious orthodoxy of “Inari centers” like Fushimi Inari or Toyokawa Inari. This is also where a lot of the “is Inari a fox” confusion comes from. Fushimi Inari priests down to this very day maintain a very strict authority that Inari is not a fox (Inari’s messenger is a fox, but that’s totally different).

But large segments of the Inari worship ‘community’, so to speak, operated (and still operate) outside the control of priestly centers of authority, and they did not have any such qualms about worshiping Inari as a fox, or foxes as Inari.

Inari also had one ‘advantage’ as a god, so to speak, that other divine competitors did not–and it all goes back to that question of Inari holding courtly rank bestowed by the emperors of Japan.

During the Tokugawa period, the shogunate attempted to regulate the religious world in greater detail–understanding clearly that religion was potentially a source of dangerous social instability. One of the ways it tried to do this was by imposing an ordered ‘ranking’ system upon shrines, managed by two families of Kyoto courtiers chosen specifically for the task: the Shirakawa and Yoshida families. These families could ‘certify’ Shinto shrines as a part of their lineages–a lack of certification didn’t exactly shutter a shrine, and indeed more than a few got by without either certification or formal priests, but official licenses from those families came with important legal perks around tax rights as well as other special prerogatives.

The Yoshida family was particularly prominent in this regard, and certification as a Yoshida shrine was priced accordingly–I’ve seen this referred to as an early form of ‘branding’ in advertising, with the Yoshida ‘brand’ of shinto (which billed itself as Yuiitsu Shinto, the one and only Shinto), being particularly popular.

However, because Inari the god had senior first rank, and because that rank predated Yoshida shinto’s dominance over the licensing system, Fushimi Inari could hand out its own official license certificates for Inari shrines independent of both the Yoshida and Shirakawa. In other words, if you didn’t want to deal with the official system, you could just make your shrine an Inari shrine and work with Fushimi Inari for much cheaper.

All told, we see two distinct factors that made Inari into, to use the language of the Edo period, a hayarigami–literally, a ‘popular god.’ First, the concerns Inari could deal with were very worldly–things of immediate need, like personal prosperity or protection from harm, rather than more abstract notions of salvation.

Second, Inari worship was not centrally controlled–the god was flexible and adaptable to different circumstances, be that more formal styles of worship as practiced at Fushimi Inari or more syncretic spirit medium stuff or anything in-between.

Indeed, the popularity of Inari worship was such that even the power of the state proved unable to change it fundamentally. When the feudal order finally collapsed in 1868 and a new imperial state emerged from the ashes, one of the first priorities of that state was to assert central control over religion–particularly over Shinto, since the Imperial government’s legitimacy derived from the emperor, and the emperor in turn derived his legitimacy from Shinto myth.

Particularly during the early Meiji period, new government directives streamed forth enforcing a strict separation of Shinto and Buddhist worship (and the privileging of the former over the latter) as well as a more hardline Shinto orthodoxy centered on the sun goddess Amaterasu (ancestor of the imperial family).

Thing was, those directives proved very hard to implement in the case of Inari. Sure, Inari shrines could be physically separated from temples, but places like Toyokawa Inari simply argued that they were not Inari Shrines–they were centers of worship for Dakiniten, who merely resembled Inari.

And that was to say nothing of all the family altars and Inari societies, which weren’t even controlled by the actual major institutions of Inari worship–government propagandizing about the importance of “correct” Shinto worship did not put much of a dent into all the blend of traditions that had accumulated around Inari worship.

Indeed, that remains a problem today; Karen Smyers has a great anecdote in her book from a priest at Fushimi Inari today, who was deeply annoyed with his parishoners–part of his role is going to their homes to help maintain their household Inari altars, but many of them didn’t even have Inari altars. The family assumed they were, but the actual god enshrined inside was someone totally different; the fortune god Benzaiten, or a Buddhist deity, say. The family just switched to Inari at some point because it was popular but never bothered updating their hardware, so to speak.

And that brings us to Inari today. Inari remains simultaneously one of Japan’s most popular religious institutions and one of its most variable ones. Fushimi Inari shrine is of course a major religious and tourist center, as is Toyokawa Inari, but you also see tons of little Inari shrines everywhere.

Honestly, if you look at most Shinto shrines you’ll probably find an Inari altar somewhere. When we were there just a few months ago, I visited…oh, probably north of 15 shrines, a mixture of major and local ones. And the only one I popped into that didn’t have an Inari shrine was Yasukuni.

Indeed, the god can crop up anywhere. The last day of the trip, I was walking around Akasaka, where our hotel was, killing time before the flight. With my wife, I decided to head to Nogi Shrine, which is in Akasaka and devoted to the memory of one of modern Japan’s most mediocre generals, Nogi Maresuke. There’s…a lot to unpack there, and more than we can get into here–but for our purposes what matters is that even here, in a shrine set up in the 1920s to stoke the fires of Japanese nationalism, there was still a little Inari shrine tucked into the corner–and honestly, I suspect that Inari altar might even predate Nogi Shrine itself.

Inari remains everywhere; Karen Smyers found Inari altars in a hairdresser shop (where the beauticians performed prayers to the god before opening every day), in corporate headquarters, in homes, and even in the middle of the woods. She even met one Inari devotee at Fushimi Inari who told her that the god was responsible for the economic revival of Volkswagen after a rough period in the 1980s: after all, the logo, if you really look at it, is basically a fox.

And that, in a sense, is the magic of Inari. Not the ability to rescue giants of the corporate world, but the adaptability of the idea itself. After all, Inari’s concerns are universal ones–and so it’s no surprise the god was and is popular, or that worship of Inari is hard to formalize.

After all, what’s there to formalize about hoping for prosperity? And hey, in a pinch, asking for the help of the fox god can’t hurt.

1 thought on “Episode 486 – Outfoxed!”

  1. Great episode! You may be aware of this and simplified it for the episode, but just in case, the Shinto reforms of 1868-1872 were not solely about unifying all deities underneath Amaterasu, which was a more outright Confucian view. Until 1881, there was a persistent Hirata Kokugaku faction which wanted the highest object of worship to be a nonspecific creator deity, Ōkuninushi, and the deities underneath Ōkuninushi arranged in an organized fashion. The most hardcore members of the Hirata group were convicted of threatening behavior and given life sentences in 1870, but the ideology remained influential, culminating in what’s often called the “Pantheon Dispute” in English in 1879-81. Anyway, neither of these groups had any use for Inari, and I learned a lot from this episode!

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