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A ‘killing stone’ broke in Japan. Is a demon on the loose?

"The Death Stone of Nasu Moor," an 1891 woodblock print, depicts Tamamo-no-Mae standing by the mythical "killing stone." A volcanic rock in Japan's Nikko National Park, long associated with the legend, split in two earlier this month.Yoshitoshi/NYT

With so much going wrong in the world, should we now also worry about a nine-tailed fox demoness that may be loose in a forest in Japan?

The answer depends partly on your reading of ancient Japanese mythology.

This month, a volcanic rock split in two in Nikko National Park, about 100 miles north of Tokyo. Intact, the rock was about 6 feet tall and 26 feet in circumference, according to a guide at the park. It had long been associated with a Japanese legend in which an evil fox spirit haunts a “killing stone,” or Sessho-seki in Japanese, making it deadly to humans. Some people have speculated that the fracture set the fox loose to cause further harm.


Others have focused on a variation of the legend that ends on a happier note. In that telling, after a Zen monk splits the rock into several pieces and coaxes out the fox, she promises never to harm humans again.

Social media has plenty of theories about what the fracturing of the stone means for ordinary mortals. So does the Japanese news media. “Is this an advance warning of a disaster or a good omen?” asked a recent article in The Asahi Shimbun, an influential newspaper.

Heightened interest in the fractured stone may be a sign of our times, said Nick Kapur, a professor of Japanese history at Rutgers University who wrote a popular Twitter thread about it in early March.

“There’s a kind of millenarian sense in the air, an apocalyptic feeling, with the coronavirus and this war in Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “People are feeling like, ‘Ah, why is all this stuff happening now?’ And so maybe this stone cracking open at this particular time just touches a nerve.”

‘Kind of an antihero’

The nine-tailed fox legend is set in the 12th century at the royal court in Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital. Scholars say it first appeared in written texts in the 15th century.


In the basic version, a retired emperor, Toba, an actual historical figure, is enchanted by a beautiful and intelligent visitor, Tamamo no Mae. When Toba falls mortally ill, a royal astrologer discovers that the visitor is an evil fox in disguise. She flees into the wilderness, and warriors dispatched by the palace shoot her with arrows, transforming her into a poisonous rock.

In real life, Toba’s death set off a succession crisis that led to an era of samurai fighting and military rule. “In all likelihood, the story of Tamamo no Mae sprang from the real world of palace politics,” scholar Janet Goff wrote in a 1997 essay about foxes in Japanese culture.

In another version of the legend — one that appeared in ancient plays and illustrated scrolls — a Zen monk is walking past the stone when a woman warns him not to go near it. She says it will kill any human, bird or beast that does.

The woman admits that she is the spirit of the stone and disappears inside it. After the monk strikes and breaks the stone with a staff, she reappears, promises never to harm humans again, and disappears for good.

For centuries, the telling of the fox legend echoed a misogynistic trope of Japanese mythology in which female characters were held responsible for the downfall of dynasties, Kapur said. But when the nine-tailed fox has appeared in modern Japanese cultural products — including anime, manga and even video games — she tends to be portrayed more favorably.


“There’s a hint of evil still there, but she’s kind of an antihero, maybe,” he said. “It’s interesting how this character has transformed from an unredeemed villain to almost someone you’d admire or want to be friends with.”

‘A scary spot’

The stone that broke apart in Nikko National Park sat in a forest dotted with sulfurous hot springs. Park rangers had been photographing cracks in the stone for years, and local officials said the final rupture was caused by toxic gas and rainwater seepage.

“The stone is a government-designated cultural asset, so we cannot decide what to do by ourselves,” said Riko Kitahara, an official at the park. “But from a maintenance standpoint, we think it should be left as it is since it split naturally.”

The Nikko stone was designated a cultural asset in 1957 by Tochigi prefecture and as a scenic spot by the national government in 2014. It is said to be one of several stones that the Zen monk created when he broke the larger boulder apart during his mythical encounter with the chastened fox spirit.

The government says 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho was referring to the stone when he wrote of visiting one that emitted poisonous fumes and was surrounded by ground “covered in so many dead bees and butterflies that you can barely see the color of the sand.”


Masaharu Sugawara, 83, a volunteer tour guide in Nikko National Park, said the poet’s reference to the stone has long been a selling point for tourists. He added that animals that gravitate to hot springs near the stone in winter sometimes die from toxic gases.

“As Matsuo Basho wrote, it’s a scary spot,” he said.

A fox for our time?

It is unlucky to discuss bad luck in Japan, so if people are worried that the fracturing of the stone will produce bad vibes, they might not be telling reporters.

Publicly, at least, many have said they believe the stone’s fracturing is a good sign, not an omen of impending doom. Some have even expressed hope that it could be exactly what the world needs at this chaotic juncture in history.

In a recent Facebook post, a tourism association in the Nikko area said that it hoped the stone’s fracturing was an “auspicious foretoken,” and that the nine-tailed fox could perhaps “tame the coronavirus and the current world situation.”

Masaki Akutsu, an official in Nasu, a town near the park, told The Asahi Shimbun that he hoped the fox had been set free to address global warming.

“This is the start of a new killing stone legend,” he said.

Masako Hitomi, 80, whose husband is a retired Shinto priest at a shrine in Nasu that pays homage to the fox, said she believed the scientific explanation for the stone’s fracture.


At the same time, she said, all the dreary news lately, including the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, seems to have played a role in the stone’s fate. (On Wednesday, a powerful undersea earthquake off the Fukushima region of Japan, north of Nasu, left at least three people dead and more than 190 injured.)

“It broke shouldering too many woes of the world,” she said. “Since the stone shouldered the evils, I hope all these awful events will end soon.”