Fox Possession & Modern Medicine

mental health 7 bannerIt has been a while, but in this post I would like to share another part of my (previous) Master’s thesis on mental health stigma with you! If you are new to this series of blog posts, feel free to check out part 12345, 6 first before getting into this one. Part 7 will discuss interpretations of madness through fox possession and other cultural constructions, while paying attention to the introduction of modern medicine and the social changes in the perception of mental health this brought along.

Fox possession (kitsunetsuki 狐憑き) became the most valid and prevalent explanation for mental disorders in the Edo period, supplemented by badger (tanuki 狸) and goblin (tengu 天狗) possession. In contrast to possession by demons (mono no ke) and deities (kami), as had been common during the Nara and Heian period[1], foxes underwent a cultural emancipation and started to play a major role in a “world where fox possession was a matter of course[2]” from the early 17th century on. Lafcadio Hearn recorded this phenomenon in detail in his work Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.


Hearn and wife

Goblin foxes are peculiarly dreaded in Izumo for three evil habits attributed to them. (…) The third and worst is that of entering into people and taking diabolical possession of them and tormenting them into madness. This affliction is called “kitsune-tsuki.” Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. (…) It not infrequently happens that the victims of fox-possession are cruelly treated by their relatives—being severely burned and beaten in the hope that the fox may be thus driven away. Then the Hoin or Yamabushi is sent for—the exorciser. The exorciser argues with the fox, who speaks through the mouth of the possessed. When the fox is reduced to silence by religious argument upon the wickedness of possessing people, he usually agrees to go away on condition of being supplied with plenty of tofu or other food[.] (…) For all these reasons, and doubtless many more, people believed to have foxes are shunned. Inter-marriage with a fox-possessing family is out of the question; and many a beautiful and accomplished girl in Izumo cannot secure a husband because of the popular belief that her family harbours foxes. (…) Very strong men are believed to be proof against all such goblinry.[3]

From this account, we learn that the possessed, although not personally blamed for their condition, were sometimes treated cruelly and faced discrimination even after recovery. Similar to mono no ke and monogurui, fox possession involves an external, evil source invading the body and dominating it from the inside, thus driving it mad. Moreover, it was believed that a lack of physical strength facilitates such afflictions. Fox possession was viewed as the cause of eccentric behavior, unnatural death, disappearances, fleeing the village, transformations and other actions regarded as “madness”. Other, often bizarre stories of fox possession are mentioned in countless Japanese works from the late Edo period, such as in Ear Bag (Mimibukuro 耳嚢), Anecdotes from the North Window (Hokusōsadan 北窓瑣談) and Kokutensago (黒甜瑣語)[4].


Fox possession drawn by Okada Gyokusan. The image dates back to the Edo period

Moreover, the kitsunetsuki theory was still supported by physicians: in Evening Talks of the Kasshi-cycle Year (Kasshiyawa 甲子夜話), a doctor witnesses a fox haunting a woman and threatening to kill her, while in Shunparōhikki (春波楼筆記), the medical treatment of a possessed patient is described[5]. Nevertheless, some physicians were skeptical about the assumed spiritual origin of “madness” and suggested that perhaps it could be regarded as some kind of illness. The author of Ear Bag lists several anecdotes involving fox and badger possession but did not leave the impression of believing the stories himself[6]. Kagawa Shūtoku香川修徳 wrote in Ippondō Gyōyoigen (一本堂行余医言, op. posth. 1807): “That which is commonly called fox possession is always the symptom of a mania (kyōshō 狂症); it is not the curse of a fox or badger. Only once or twice in hundred, thousand cases they are really possessed by a fox[7]”. The Accounts of Official Business 御用留帳 (Goyōdomechō, 1703-1867) in Moriyama, Michinoku, give various descriptions of incidents involving “mad” people, but recognizes in most cases their “madness” as an illness or as a result of intoxication (shukyō 酒狂).

There are, however limited, still examples of “madness” interpreted as fox or spirit possession[8]. In short, the new interpretation of “madness”, instigated by the venue of medical science, did not yet fully exclude the traditional perception of fox possession. On the contrary, both concepts were complementary because they were regarded as the cause for completely different symptoms – a comprehensive idea in the modern sense like “mental disorders” was not yet developed. In the medical books of the Edo period, we find descriptions of spirit possessions interpreted as jasui 邪祟 (“evil curse”)[9]. Hence, fox possession was only rejected as a wrong and superstitious interpretation of “madness” from modern times on[10].


Jozef Guislain from Ghent specialized in the humane treatment of the mentally ill.

The introduction of western medicine by the Dutch (ranpō igaku 蘭方医学) brought along the notion of an interior pathogenesis[11], in contrast with the traditional belief that “madness or other illnesses were caused by the addition of something exterior, similar to injuries or intoxication[12]”. The idea that consciousness, and therefore the cause of “madness” is situated in the brain, as suggested by the Dutch, was revolutionary[13]. It also complicated treatment, since the usual exorcism was deemed not appropriate anymore to cure mental afflictions. In a medical context, jasui was no longer “the subject of shamanistic treatment but took meaning as an action approached from a doctor’s standpoint[14]”.

However, treatment rooted in tradition was still prescribed[15]. For example, Kagawa Shūtoku recommended in his practical work Ippondō Yakusen (一本堂薬撰, 1738) “sprinkling of water as effective against demonstrated madness[16]”. In other words, in the Edo period, some mental disorders were still perceived as spirit possessions and necessitated traditional methods, but in combination with newly introduced medical treatment. In premodern Japan,

[Madness] sometimes invaded the body from the outside and could then be expelled. It was regarded as something supernatural and exterior. Hence, it was possible for the person who was possessed by a fox to return to his normal condition by removing the evil spirit from his body and mind. Fox possession was certainly not viewed as irreversible or incurable, and the possessed was therefore not criticized according to secular morals. [17]

Once the evil was removed, the patient could return to his state as before the possession. “Madness” was something superfluous that did not originate from the afflicted person himself and could easily be removed. As a result, those who were or had been possessed by evil spirits were not regularly the subject of social stigma, although it must be said that some faced cruel treatment that was directed toward the fox “inside” them. This is in contrast with “madness” later defined as a “mental illness”, whereby “the existence of the patient himself was the foundation on which the mental originated; not only did this relate to the moment when the illness manifested itself, its time-axis was to be traced back to the patient’s past[18]”. Even with a gradual development of psychiatry, doctors kept struggling to give a clear explanation for mental diseases, whereas a curse or possession had provided cause and meaning for “madness” in se[19]. “Madness” grew highly personal, and provoked stigmatizing attitudes claiming that the patient himself was at fault or that mental disorders were untreatable.


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All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons