Sunday, December 5, 2010

Kitsune: The Dog, The Myth, The Legend

I thought, in lieu of anything else to post right now, that I'd fill everyone in on how Kitsune got his name.

I read someone's blog where they posted thoughts about how Shiba owners who name their dogs Japanese names annoy them.  Because most of us on this continent aren't Japanese, and aren't fluent in Japanese.  I'm not sure how it makes sense that if you're any other race but Japanese you can't name your Japanese dog a Japanese name, but whatev.  It's an opinion.  My opinion is:  Just because I'm American doesn't mean I can't appreciate something that isn't.  (I like vodka, too, but I'm not Russian.)  Lots of people ask me how I came about Kitsune's name, and on the street when he's pulling me one direction and they're going another, I usually only have time for the seriously abridged, "It means 'fox' in Japanese," tossed over my shoulder.  There's a bit more to the story (and the word) than that.

Kitsune didn't come home with a name.  He didn't even get a name in the first 24 hours.  We bandied about names.  I thought about naming him Red XIII, after a favorite Final Fantasy VII character.  That one got a lot of consideration.  Red XIII had feline and canine characteristics, like a Shiba.  He's Shiba colored.  And I just really, really like him.  But what do you call a dog whose name is Red XIII?  Red?  That didn't click with me as a dog name.  Certainly "Thirteen" isn't right.  I tried to make it work for me and it just wouldn't.  In theory, it's a kick ass Shiba name.  When it actually comes out of your mouth, it's awkward no matter how you break it down.

Fenris was another name I thought about, but I had already known a dog named Fenris.  I would have thought about that dog every time I called my dog, and that, to me, is just not right.

The day after Kitsune came home, I was sitting at the computer chatting via IM about my new puppy to a friend of mine, Kenn.  Kenn is Japanese American.  I asked his opinion on names.

His opinion?  "That's a Japanese dog.  He needs a Japanese name."

Well, okay great, Kenn, but I don't know very much Japanese, and I'm not going to name my dog "konnichiwa."

I had sent Kenn a picture of the little bat-eared puppy, and Kenn said, "Name him Kitsune.  He looks like a fox."

Kitsune seemed right, and from that moment on, Kitsune was his name.

So really, you could say Kenn named my dog.  (Thanks, Kenn!)

As far as I am concerned, the name Kitsune in relation to my dog goes far beyond any resemblance to a red, bushy-tailed, clever and secretive mammal.

Kitsune, in Japanese legends, are kami, little messenger spirits that take the shape of foxes.  Like fox spirits in other cultures (notably the Native American), the kitsune are mercurial tricksters, seeking to teach us valuable lessons through their pranks.  (That's all kinds of my dog.)  Kitusne have their own code of ethics, which does not necessarily agree with or even oppose our own morality.  However, if you offend a Kitsune, especially within this code of ethics, they become quite disruptive.  If you follow their code of ethics, they are extremely polite, kind, and helpful.  Again, that sounds like every Shiba I've ever known.  Once someone has earned a kitsune's loyalty and trust (and you must earn it, it is not given freely), that loyalty will last through the most severe trials, and sometimes through several family generations.

Kitsune absolutely will not accept being forced into something they do not want.  (I'll have to take a video of Kitsune with a Gentle Leader on.  Biggest.  Tantrum.  Ever.)

The more I read about the Kitsune in Japanese culture, the more it fit my dog.  Now we just refer to him as our little chaos spirit.

In the five years since Kenn named my dog Kitsune, I've discovered that Kitsune is a very popular name for Shibas and Akitas, both here in the US and in Japan.  My best friend in high school had an Akita, the first one I had known, and her registered name was Kitsune Kasai, although being a Japanese import, it was printed in Japanese characters and no one knew what it said until many years after her passing.  They just called her Foxy. I didn't even know her real name was Kitsune until about a month ago.  Jen at Inu Baka has a Kitsune.

You probably already know of a kitsune without knowing that it's even a kitsune from video games, anime, and other things that have migrated from Japan into our pop culture:

Tails of Sonic The Hedgehog fame
Shippo from the anime InuYasha
Pokemon: Vulpix
Keaton from Legend of Zelda
Ninetails of Okami (Highly recommend this game, btw)
Magic The Gathering Kamigawa block featured many "kitsune" cards, including the rare Eight-and-a-Half-Tails:

My next Shiba will keep the Kitsune theme.  Now that I know about them, I find myself fascinated with them.  I am the person watching something random on TV who shouts, "That's a kitsune!" when I see any fox like creature with more than one tail.  I acquired every Magic the Gathering kitsune card and have them hanging, as a set, on my wall.  (I am Uber Geek Nerd Girl.)

And now that you know about Kitsune, I will leave you with this beautiful clip from Sunhine Through The Rain, by Akira Kurosawa.  Poetry on Film.

When it rains and the sun is shining, the kitsune have their wedding processions.  The next time the sun shines through the rain in your area, stay inside, so that you do not accidentally see a kitsune wedding procession.  They don't like it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Loyalty of Dogs

Dog loyalty comes in many forms.  Knowing when you've had a bad day and doing something wacky or special to lift you up.  A stand-offish dog like my Kitsune suddenly deciding, when you're sick in bed and feel like crap, to have a cuddle session.  Getting you over your Demon Days.  Stealing the neighbor's newspaper when yours is missing (true story).  Defending the home and the loved people in it.

I've seen a lot of doggy devotion, but I've never seen a dog devoted enough to sit for hours at a window, waiting, watching.  Until Kitsune.

The windows at our old apartment were not conducive to dogs peering through them.  There were only two that faced the parking lot, one was so drafty it had to be constantly covered in plastic sheeting and a quilt, the other had trees and bushes blocking any view.

Kitsune still knew when someone was coming home, we realized this very early on.

At this apartment, there are floor to ceiling windows all over the place.  Kitsune can stand with all four feet on the ground and look out of any of them.  He can keep an eye on his Groundhog Hunting Grounds and the parking lot almost simultaneously with a quick sprint through the living room.

It wasn't long after we'd moved that I noticed, if I left the house when my SO was home and Kitsune was roaming, he was sitting at my son's bedroom window watching me leave, and he would still be sitting there when I came back.  I started to wonder if he was sitting there the entire time I was away.  I noticed that he would do the same thing when my SO left and I was at home with Kitsune.

One night my SO had to get up in the middle of the night to pick a friend up from the airport.  I watched Kitsune get up when my SO got up.  My SO left.  Kitsune sat down by the bedroom window and looked out of it.  He sat there the entire three hours without moving.  I tried to draw his attention away from his vigil, but he wouldn't have it.  If I called his name, he only turned the ear closest to me in my direction.  A couple of times, I thought he would leave the window when the cats were horsing around just outside the bedroom door in the hall, but the most he did was turn his head to look, longingly, at the action.  For Kitsune, that's true restraint.

My Sainted Labrador never did anything like this.  He was happy to see people when they came home.  He smiled, and grunted, and shoved favorite plush toys in the arrival's direction.  He never mounted a vigil and refused to leave it, though.  Not for me, not for anybody.  It's as if I have my own personal Hachiko in Kitsune.

The Disney movie Eight Below is a true story, with one major and (to me) glaring misrepresentation:  The dogs left behind by researchers were not Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes.  They were **Akitas and Karafuto-ken, another Japanese spitz breed.  The original film is called Nankyoku Monogatari.  It was released in the US as Antarctica.  I will warn you now:  It is much harder to watch, emotionally, than the Disney version.  After being left to fend for themselves for a year in conditions no other dog could survive in, Taro and Jiro greeted their handler with "wild enthusiasm."  Although it is pure conjecture on my part, I'd be willing to bet that the few moments not given over to survival, one or the other of them was watching.  Waiting.  Scenting and staring in the direction that they had last seen their beloved person.

What's so special about a dog waiting at a train station every day, or watching at a window without moving for food, water, or cat ruckus for a favored person to return?

It's the idea that loyalty of that magnitude can exist on earth.  It is hope for the human race, if a dog is capable of that, how much more potential exists in you, or me, or anyone.  Everyone.

The Samurai trained with spitz breeds to learn the true meanings of loyalty and bravery from them.  In this, as in many things, the ancient Japanese wisdom is right on the money.  Observing a dog is one of the only ways to experience that type of devotion and loyalty, but with few exceptions, the Japanese spitz breeds raise the bar.

This morning, I had to drop my SO off at his job, and sit at the bus stop with my son.  When I got home from these errands, which took about 25 minutes, I pulled into my parking space and looked up to see a foxy face staring out of my son's bedroom window.

He had been sitting there with his nose practically touching the glass for long enough that his breath had fogged up a space almost two feet long and a foot high on the window, requiring him to crane his neck to try and peer over or around it.  I wanted to get a picture to post for you, but in order to get a clear picture I would have had to open the car door and get closer to the window, and the second I open the car door Kitsune leaves his post and begins yodeling at the front door.

Domo arigato, Shiba-sensei.  I have the best teacher.

**I have read two sources that say the dogs were Akitas.  One reference to the story in Dog Man says they were Akitas.  Wikipedia says the dogs were Karafuto.  So I will leave it at that they were both, because they probably were.  Working sled dog teams tend to be comprised of many breeds, purebred and mixes of different northern dogs to get the best traits.  With your survival dependent on your sled dogs going into harsh conditions, it's not about a dog's pedigree or breed but only about if they can endure the weather and do the job.