In Japan, myōbu (命婦) is a title which was given to ladies of the fifth rank in the imperial court or to midrank noblewomen. In The Pillow Book, Lady Myōbu was also the name of a pet cat belonging to Empress Consort Sadako, whom the author Sei Shōnagon served. 3
This title is commonly associated with the kitsune messengers of the rice deity Inari, for reasons that are obscure. Japanese folklore contains several stories that suggest explanations for the connection, mainly involving the Fushimi Inari Shrine on Mount Inari near Kyoto. On this mountain are a vast number of shrines, mainly to Inari, but also to other deities, including a fox deity named Myōbu. The Fushimi shrine itself contains smaller shrines, including the Byakko-sha ("white fox shrine") and the Myōbu-sha ("court lady shrine").
Legends connecting kitsune to the title myōbu
- Kitsune were given the title by a court lady of the same rank.
- In the reign of the Emperor Ichijō (980–1011), there lived a charming court lady with a rank of myōbu whose name was Shinno-Myōbu. She was a devotee of Inari God. She went to the shrine at Fushimi, Kyoto, to confine herself there for prayer for a period of seven days. After she had completed her term of worship, it is said, she won the heart of the Mikado and later became his consort. She attributed her good luck to the white foxes guarding the shrine and the name of myōbu was given to them. 2
- A lady of the imperial court who followed the Inari faith would frequently make pilgrimage to Fushimi. As she grew older she became unable to climb to the highest peak of Mount Inari, and so asked a tamed fox to make the pilgrimage to the third peak for her, promising to bestow her title upon the fox if it did so. The fox made the pilgrimage every day, and so received her title. 1
- A particular lady of the court who followed the Inari religion faithfully believed in a spirit fox known as Akomachi. Due to her faith, she was able to receive the favour of a high-ranking lord, and became one of his wives. One of her daughters became the wife of the emperor, and her sons all received high positions within the court. Because of this, she awarded the fox the title of myōbu. 1
- Kitsune were given the title in honor of a deity.
- During a visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine during the spring of 1071, the Emperor Go-Sanjō awarded the title myōbu to an old fox at a shrine to a female deity. 1
- Myobu was often used to describe the kitsune who were faithful to Inari. These kitsune are often white or other lighter colors.
- Kitsune who did not follow Inari are often referred to as Nogitsune. They are often black or red. They are generally more mischievous than their Myobu brethren, and seem to have more interactions with humans.4
- Chris Azure, A History of Fox Beliefs. (2000–2004)
- Kiyoshi Nozaki, Kitsuné — Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humor. Tokyo: The Hokuseidô Press. (1961)
- Sei Shōnagon; Ivan Morris, translator; The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Columbia. (1991)
- Watts Martin, "Kitsune: Coyote of the Orient".