Foxes were traditionally viewed in Japan not merely as animals but as supernatural tricksters that did not bode well for health or wealth. Some supernatural foxes were seen as good, and serving the kami Inari, but many were simply regarded as bad news. And when the supernatural foxes got out of control, one could summon a foxkiller.
Northern-born 17th century samurai Katsumata Yazaemon’s services as a foxkiller were highly esteemed. He would quell the fox problem, but rather than exorcism, Yazaemon preferred the more direct means of poison.
In all probability, the man really did exist. At least, I haven’t been able to find any information to the contrary. He lived at some point in the late 17th to early 18th century, as a vassal to the house of Date, who ruled from the Sendai Castle town. One story has Yazaemon as a contemporary of the 4th Sendai domain lord Date Tsunamura, but any further detail presently eludes me. He was a musketman (teppokata ashigaru)and lived in Kita-gojuninmachi, a foot soldiers’ neighborhood just north across the Hirose River from Sendai Castle.
The bulk of what can be empirically confirmed on Yazaemon ends here, as this is where his legend begins.
This foot soldier Yazaemon, it’s believed, was a skilled fox-killer. As I said above, foxes were seen as tricksters, and the sooner they could be dealt with, the better. Yazaemon was, they say, able to outsmart the foxes, and trick them into taking deadly poison. There are stories about his exploits, but I’d like to offer just one, below, where Yazaemon was unable to kill the fox.
There once was a famous flute called Oni-ichimonji, originally owned by the Heian era flautist Minamoto no Hiromasa (918–980). Mind you, this flute really does exist, and was returned to Sendai not too long ago (in 1999) for display in the city museum. During the Edo period, the flute was one of the Date family’s greatest treasures; in the late 17th century, it was entrusted to Namazue Rokudayū, a flautist of the Issō school, who played part of the musical accompaniment for Noh drama. During the reign of the 4th lord of Sendai, Date Tsunamura(1659–1719, ruled 1660–1703), Rokudayū incurred the lord’s displeasure and was banished to the farthest corner of the domain. However, he was allowed to keep custody of the flute, and often played it to pass the time.
One day, an old fox heard the flute and approached Rokudayū in human guise. He explained who he was, and said that the next day, the fox-killer Yazaemon was coming from Sendai to hunt for him. If Rokudayū would protect the fox, the fox would surely repay him for this kindness. So fox-killer Yazaemon came, and Rokudayū kept the old fox hidden. After it was safe to come out, the old fox said “His Lordship is soon headed to his beachside estate. Go to the beach tomorrow night, face westward, and play with all your heart.” Rokudayū did so. The next night, at his estate in Gotensaki (modern-day Shichigahama City), Lord Tsunamura heard the sound of a flute from across the water. When he asked who it could be, an attendant informed him that it sounded like Rokudayū, playing his flute. “My,” the lord said, “He must be quite skilled to be able to play well enough for me to hear from so far away! Bring him back!” A few days later, Rokudayū was summoned to Sendai Castle, pardoned, and reinstated.
As for Yazaemon, I assume he didn’t let this setback get the best of him, and went on fox-hunting to the end of his days.
After all, foxes were bad news.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow. London: Allen & Unwin, 1975.
- Kado Reiko 門玲子. Waga Makuzu Monogatari わが真葛物語.Tokyo: Fujiwara Shoten, 2006.
- Matisoff, Susan. The Legend of Semimaru, Blind Musician of Japan. Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2006.
- Mihara Ryōkichi 三原良吉. Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro 郷土史仙台耳ぶくろ. Sendai: Hōbundō Shuppansha, 1983.
- Takahashi Tomio 高橋富雄. Miyagiken no Rekishi 宮城県の歴史.Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1971.