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Fox God Inari and the environment

Food for God

The other day there was this article in Japan Today on environmental activism impeding traditions. The story was like this. Off in Nagano, better known for winter snow and the Onsen loving monkeys, there is a village where frogs are given as offerings to God. No neither cooked nor sashimied, simply forked and dished out. Granted this may not be to your taste of food, but then that’s not the issue. The issue is about nature. Animal lovers see it as cruel. Environmentalists are against killing frogs because frogs eat the agricultural pests thus working as a green alternative to using harmful pesticides.

So far so good. But have you wondered why frogs out of everything else is offered to God? Which kind of God has this particular culinary choice?

Food for thought

Well the answer lies also in a culture that was deeply connected to environment. Though not specifically mentioned in the Japan Today story it can safely be surmised that the God in question is the revered Inari, the fox God of Japan. One of the most popular Shinto gods, Inari temples are there on almost every street corner. Inari is the God of the masses, the people of the agrarian Japanese society. Foxes ate the rats that would have otherwise eaten away the harvests. Foxes are rats that would have otherwise lured snakes into the granaries. So it is due to  these reasons that foxes became a symbol of god’s grace, and in time a God himself. As rice farming became the main livelihood and the benefit of foxes protecting the granaries became widely known, this fox God became an important part of Japan.

Inari at shrine entrance
Inari at shrine entrance

Now you reader you may kindly note at this point that converting anything good into a tradition is a tradition in Japan. So in no time feeding the foxes became a tradition, and what better food than a freshly caught yummy frogs ?!!.

That could have been the end of the story here. The curious though might be interested in a bit more. So read on. The revered fox God, after his beatification, became ambitious. He was not to be left as just another God. popularity is good, but recognition is important. It soon came, in the form of a royal decree elevating His status as one of the foremost Gods. Mind it, This was not a mean feat, being recognized as one of the top few amongst the officially recognized  eight million gods! That was the beginning of a glorious journey. The rich and powerful erected grand shrines dedicated to Inari. Fushimi Inari in Kyoto became famous as a power spot of Fox God. Devotees came and erected a Torii, a simple red wooden structure representing the gate to heaven. Everyone came and erected one. The path up the mountainside  got covered in Toriis. 30,000 and counting. World took notice. Hollywood immortalized the shrine in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Hollywood at Fushimi Inari
Hollywood at Fushimi Inari

With that came tourists, business, more devotees, more fame, more tourists… well you get it don’t you.

Kitsune
Kitsune

But then that is again not the end of the story, I am afraid. Gods have avatars, avatars have magical powers. Inari had to have as well. So came the legend of Kitsune- a magical powerful manifestation of Inari. The people’s God now transcended into the literary psyche of demons and legends of great fights. Spirits in devilish forms appeared to extract revenge on the non-believers. So whereas the original Inari was seen as benevolent God with a ball of rice in mouth, symbolizing the association with harvest, the new incarnation appeared as deviant nine tailed Devils. Soon therefore another family of rituals were born to pacify this tricky vengeful form of Inari. This one did not need any raw animal sacrifice though.

So, now we have two firms of the fox God, benevolent and malevolent. Two rituals to appease. And one great debate – should Inari continue to be offered frogs for lunch or not?

Let’s think through, compare if there are other traditions that are more important to keep or stop first. and then come back another day for the specific answer to this great conundrum. Till then, um, sayonara


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