Inari (稲荷)

The very beginning of things is always a challenge. Especially if these things take you in the realm of the unknown, and the beginning of Inari Press was no different. We created Inari Press with the goal in mind to create a wide and varied collection of material on Japanese culture, news, and history, but we were stumped as to the topic of our very first post. After some thought, and keeping a celebratory mood in mind as this is the kick-off of this blog, we decided to write the first post as an introductory note on the mythological origin of our organization’s name: Inari. Mythology is one of the richest treasures a culture possesses, and it continues to inspire people throughout time. We here at Inari agree that mythology is a timeless inspiration, which is why we have chosen to name ourselves after Inari, and why it was so easy to turn to mythology when looking for inspiration for this post. Inari is one of the many gods from Japanese mythology, but as it is impossible to scratch even the surface of what an entire culture’s mythology entails, I will limit myself in this post to the background information needed to explain where our inspiration comes from. And in time, future posts will give you more detailed information on this subject. The sources I used, and which I suggest for further reading, are listed below.

Japanese mythology embraced a large number of gods into their system. Religiously speaking, the two major religions from Japan, Shinto and Buddhism, both inspired the development of the myths over time. As in most mythologies, cosmogony played an important role in the myths, and there was a certain hierarchy to be found among the different gods. Gods or spirits are called kami (神), and especially in the Shinto tradition, a wealth of gods can be found when reading through the mythological stories. There are a few works on which Japanese mythology known by us today is based, the oldest of which is the Kojiki (古事記), dating from the beginning of the eight century. More on this will follow in future posts.

Inari, as briefly mentioned above, is a Kami. More specifically, he is the ‘kami of rice, prosperity and plenty,’ (Ashkenazi, 170). The word Inari itself can be interpreted as “Rice carrier” (Ashkenazi, 170), and this signifies Inari as the bringer, the carrier, of the abovementioned prosperity and plenty. Inari is considered one of the more popular deities, and a quick google search will show you many images of rice, of the shrines dedicated to him, but also of foxes. This is due to the fact that Inari himself was often depicted with a fox, as the fox was his messenger. This connotation later took on a life of its own when, in the eleventh century, Inari became ‘associated with the Fox God, with attributes for good and evil,’ (Davis, 93). Davis, in Myths and Legends of Japan, continues to describe that the fox legends are generally associated with evil, and that there are many myths about Inari where his actions are questionable at best. Yet Inari was a creature of good, also: ‘Inari sometimes poses as a beneficent being, a being who can cure coughs and colds, bring wealth to the needy, and answer a woman’s prayer for a child,’ (Davis, 93). This emphasizes the benevolent nature he would have as a god of plenty and prosperity, good things people tend to pray for, and also shows that this prosperity stretches beyond wealth. To be healthy, and to have a desire to be loving and nurturing fulfilled, is also to be prosperous.

Shrines built in Inari’s honour can be admired in several parts of the country, they can be recognised ‘by their asymmetrical red-painted torii gates (鳥居), red-laquered walls, and statues of foxes,’ (Ashkenazi, 70). The most important Inari shrine can be admired in Kyoto.

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Fushimi-Inari Shrine; Kyoto.

inari fox

Fox statue, Fushimi-Inari; Kyoto.

Over time, the connotation with Inari to prosperity was taken up by the merchant classes when commercialism was on the rise in the Edo period. As Ashkenazi puts it: ‘particularly in the merchant towns, Inari assumed an added function as the kami of merchant wealth and prosperity. Later, during the Meiji period and extending into the modern period, he has become the kami of industry and finance. In modern Japan his shrines are to be found at the corners of market streets and on the tops of skyscrapers in the financial districts of Japanese cities,’ (171, 172). In this slight shift in meaning for Inari, in the emphasis placed on wealth and prosperity, Inari is an important symbol for everyone looking for success. And even if financial success is the most prominent in the symbolism that Inari possessed during and after the rise of commercialism, there are many ways in which a person can be prosperous, as I have touched upon above. We at this organisation, for example, do not readily interpret Inari as the kami for financial wealth and success alone. In the bonds that we wish to form and in the audience we wish to reach is where we wish for our successes, when we turn our eyes to the future. As Ashkenazi concludes, ‘Inari is concerned with all worldly success,’ (172) and this, for us, includes the success we wish for our organisation to have in bringing people together and opening an open discourse on all things Japanese.

It also worthy to note that if one wants the favour and rewards of Inari, it would be good to be nice to a fox (Ashkenazi, 94).

Works cited (and suggested further reading):

Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc, 2003. Print.

Davis, Frederick Hadland. Myths and Legends of Japan. New York: Cosimo Inc, 1913. Print.