The Fox Girls of Kowata High

At first, when the kitsune were interested, they would emulate the desirable human girls, but one by one our girls’ would show their true colors and return to their fox forms.

Fujino Kaori, a lifelong resident of the city of Kyoto, Japan, holds an MA in aesthetics and art from Dōshisha University. In 2013, she received the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prominent literary award, for Nails and Eyes (Tsume to Me). Since then, she has turned to short stories, publishing three collections: Little Miss Tell-Me-a-Story (Ohanashi shite ko-chan, 2013), Final Girl  (Fainaru gaaru, 2014), and Dress (Doresu, 2017). I

Translator's note: 

Kaori Fujino and I met during the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program Fall Residency in 2017: the encounter introduced me not only to the fantastic story below but also to her writing as a whole. I’d been interested in kitsune folklore for a while and “The Fox Girls of Kowata High” (木幡狐) presented a number of interesting challenges.

The primary one was deciding how to address the kitsune as a cohort. In Japanese, the basic term for fox is “kitsune,” and technically, any fox can become a magical, folklore type kitsune by living for over a hundred years, but since this story deals specifically with the magical foxes, I decided to differentiate between them by using “kitsune” for the magical variety and calling non-magical foxes simply “foxes.” Within kitsune folklore, a kitsune can transform into any human, regardless of the fox’s or human’s gender, so the gender-neutral pronoun “they” seemed most suitable when referring to those kitsune who weren’t turning into high school girls. A second challenge was to preserve the distance the kitsune keep from the humans, while also replicating the story’s humor, such as during the scene where the narrator kitsune is attempting to control the classroom early on in the story.

While this story can be read purely for entertainment, it also invites us to take a sharp look at the expectations current Japanese society still places on women, and women’s strategies for either fitting into these roles or abandoning them to forge their own paths.

--Mac Gill

The Fox Girls of Kowata High

  Not now, but also not so far in the past that one could say “long ago,” I became part of the “Yamashiro Kowata Junior and Senior High School for Girls Project.” The project’s objective was, in summary, to invade human society and ensnare its members. We kitsune created the illusion of a well-established all-girls boarding school that had always existed at that particular spot. The fact that all our girls lived on campus made the school a rarity. The educational policy focused on teaching our young women the Meiji-period ideology of “good wife, wise mother.”
  Almost as soon as we started work on the project, the girls at the school began to charm all the human boys and girls in the neighborhood. Our school compound had, of course, a Shinto fox shrine situated on it and the right breast of our uniform was embroidered with a small fox insignia. While we had taken great care to imitate the names of the schools organized by humans—that’s why we chose “Yamashiro Kowata Junior and Senior High School for Girls”— those two things ensured that the boys at other schools would never call it by its official name. They called it “Foxy Academy.” If the humans saw any of our students out and about at McDonald’s, Dotour, or Starbucks, the boys would often yell vulgar things like “I wanna sleep with a Foxy Academy girl!” Girls from other schools in the area would sigh deeply and say “Ugh! The boys never pay attention to us ‘cause they only have eyes for the Foxy Academy girls!”
  Of course they reacted this way. The project team had done thorough research on human society’s desired ideal of “good wife, wise mother.” The commonly held belief in the past was that “good wife, wise mother” meant being good at sewing and cooking and that a woman held responsibility over the inside of the house. If she could do all of that and also maintain favorable relations with neighbors and relatives, then she was considered acceptable. These days, those sorts of things hold little merit on their own. In addition to being excellent at housework, a wife should be able to demonstrate an astute sense of interior design and food presentation. She should also be endowed with both general knowledge of the world and cultural knowledge. A woman should raise the children (yes, plural; two or three children, and it seems most desirable to have at least one of each gender) as only she can in terms of both physical and educational growth. Of course, besides raising the children, a woman must expend the same amount of energy ensuring that everything around her husband is neat and orderly for him. Additionally, she should earn equal to, if not more than, her husband’s wages (that said, there are instances when a woman who earns more than her husband is not well received, which will require case-by-case investigations). For a woman, from the time the children are young to when she herself grows old, it is imperative that she consider how she will be viewed by others and thus take great care with her figure and appearance. The initial step to becoming a “good wife, wise mother” is to master the tricks for stimulating, on any number of levels, the reproductive desires of the young human males. At Foxy Academy, in order to ensure that we were turning out large numbers of students who satisfied those requirements, we created a round-the-clock high-level and exhaustive training program. The end result was that, based on what the humans valued, our school’s girls were beautiful and their style superb. They were blessed with excellent grades and superior athleticism—they became an elite group of young women naturally skilled in the art of conversation, they were vivacious and had ample natural charm. There was no way a mere human would be able to compete.
  “How can they be so perfect? Are they like gods or something?” the human girls would ask with admiration and longing. Good intuition, ladies. We aren’t gods, but from a human’s perspective, we are certainly god-like.
  “If she’s not Foxy then I don’t want her!” the boys always boasted. Since they didn’t know their place, it was only natural they would say these things. While an ambitious spirit is the cornerstone of the image of “good wife, wise mother,” in modern human society, humans are totally lacking in one thing that we can call absolutely necessary for turning the ideal of the “good wife, wise mother” into an actual “good wife, wise mother,” by bearing the risk of getting pregnant one or multiple times. And that one thing is strength. The amount of stamina that the average human possesses is not enough for her to achieve such a lofty goal. Their lives are much too short and even during that unfortunately short span of time they have trouble staying healthy. To us, however, this didn’t present any significant challenge. We studied the structure and trends of human society and mastered human ways through practice, and with a little more effort we were able to push past any difficulties. The objective of the Yamashiro Kowata Junior and Senior High School for Girls Project was to send our kin, transformed into young women who perfectly portrayed this ideal of “good wife, wise mother,” out into the world, and then marry them off to the human men that were drawn to them. As the number of children carrying our blood increased, we would be able to one day take over human society completely. As I watched those kitsune who bore the obligation of becoming high school girls so easily entice the stupid human boys and girls and toyed with them, I thought about how close we were to the day of our success.
  But in contrast to how superior kitsune are, with so many wonderful abilities—actually, perhaps because we are so superior—we have the terrible fault of getting bored with things. We can become hyper-focused but we can’t stay that focused for a long period of time. At first, when the kitsune were interested, they would emulate the desirable human girls, but one by one our girls’ would show their true colors and return to their fox forms. I had the responsibility of playing the part of their teacher.
“Hey! Good wife, wise mother trainees aren’t skinheads! Get back to your long, straight, black hair immediately!” I hit one of the girls, who was sitting sloppily in her chair and stretching her legs out farther than a human should be able to, on the head with my attendance record. Just as I was thinking why is her shaved head glowing with such a blindingly rainbow light, blond hair jetted out from her scalp, grew up until it reached the ceiling, then spiraled around and around until it rested on top of her head in a heap. One of the other students, already given up any pretense of interest in maintaining her human form, lifted a model ship on the end of her nose, bounced over, and gently arranged it at the peak of the blonde mass of hair on the other girls’ head.
  “Ugh, I’m so bored...” giggled the student who had placed the boat. As the model ship slid smoothly off the now-blonde girl’s hair, she turned into the freshly severed head of a warrior—the kind one might’ve seen in Japan not all that long ago—which tumbled onto the floor. Long, slender, white legs swiftly grew out from the base of her neck. I looked up and up to where the legs met the neck. The corpse head peered back down at me and said, “Me too!” Everywhere in the classroom there were friends grooming each other as kitsune, and students who had turned into other strange forms. In this instance, humans would be able to say something like “young kids can be such troublemakers!” or some other idle complaint. But just because some of the kitsune on our project team were playing young girls, did not necessarily mean they themselves were young. Actually, I was one of the youngest on the team. We each picked out the role we wanted to play.
  I looked around the room for help. There was but one girl sitting at her desk, reading a paperback book, with the correct long, black hair running straight down her spine. Her appearance was still human, and her downcast eyes were not unnaturally large nor her eyebrows unnaturally long. Her book was wrapped in a cloth cover. Moreover, the cover seemed hand made. In the corner, in small, chain-stitched letters, was her name: KISHIYU. Kishiyu, the youngest on our team.
  “Everyone! Please look at Kishiyu!” I said, clapping my hands.
  “She has masterfully retained her high-school-girl-form and she’s only 116 years old. Aren’t you embarrassed to be surpassed by such a young girl? Learn from her!”
  The classroom did not get any quieter. I sighed.

  At the next faculty meeting, we decided to talk things over with Kishiyu. Although she never got tired of maintaining the type of appearance and mannerisms that the simple human boys tended to like, she never got tired of the lessons, and she didn’t show any interest in fraternizing with the lowly humans outside of school. The other kitsune were always going out, recklessly scaring humans walking down the street, raising a ruckus at karaoke, going on group dates with the Buddha statues from the museum, and were even picking up both young human men and women and fooling around with them just for fun.
  “Everyone has high expectations for you. You never go out and you always conduct relationships properly during on-site practice. You make it look easy.” Kishiyu was silent.
  “If you did go out, the human boys would definitely start loitering around outside the school gate. Like you were a celebrity coming out to greet them. You know that, right?”
  “I know, but I have no interest in doing that. I have no interest in those children, either. I want to hurry up and find someone who’s an adult. Someone elite. If he’s not a tall, rich, handsome man then I’m not interested. We’d get married, and then I want to live in a nice home with a lot of classy furniture. Either a house or a condo would be fine. Y’know, over on Sanjō there’s a new high-rise condo building going up?” Kishiyu said in a thin, quiet voice, as if she were embarrassed. Her not-unnatural-for-a-human white cheeks flushed a not-unnatural-for-a-human shade of light pink. Without thinking, I stood up in surprise.
  “Kishiyu, you even say things that sound like a human girl...”
  We held another faculty meeting and decided Kishiyu would definitely skip a few grades. What we really did was judge each student’s aptitude at the beginning and then taught them for three to six years; with the idea being that their final exams would be to attend a human university and then be released upon the world. While this might seem like a long stretch of time for a human, it was only a trifling amount for us. There was no reason to rush. But, even within that short span of time, the school classes had begun to fall into chaos, and Kishiyu was the sole participant who was posting brilliant results. We were all counting on Kishiyu putting her skills into practice.
  “Skip a few grades?” Kishiyu asked, while brushing her sleek black hair with a pink comb that had a sparkly star sticker on it. Not that she had to do those things, since her hair and such obeyed her thoughts anyways.
  “Absolutely. You’d basically graduate early. You’re by far the most talented “human” woman here. This place has nothing more to teach you. If that’s what you’d like. You’d be exempt from university too. Would you like to get married?”
  “Really?! I’m so happy!”
  Kishiyu lifted both hands to her mouth in excitement. And, in a not-unnatural-for-a-human way, she began to bounce up and down, then threw her arms around my neck in a hug. I was astonished by Kishiyu’s complete humanness.
  From then on, I was never exactly sure which of us was the teacher. In the blink of an eye, Kishiyu came back saying that she had found someone to marry. Kishiyu had fallen for a young man named Fujiwara who worked at a top-ranked trading company and earned ¥10,000,000 a year. I accompanied Kishiyu and we observed Fujiwara from a distance. He was sitting at a Starbucks, working on his computer and drinking a coffee. We were in a nearby building, pressed up against a window on the top floor to get a lay of the situation.
  “So handsome, right?” Kishiyu whispered ecstatically. I looked closely at Fujiwara’s face. By the standards of what humans considered to be attractive, he more than measured up.
  “That guy, he’s got a good pedigree. I looked into him.”
  “Oh really...”
  Kishiyu began her preparations immediately, and I helped her. First, she changed into an adult woman who looked like she should be dating Fujiwara. She did not change her height, but she did make her cheekbones slightly more prominent, added a gentle wave to her long, black hair, made her chest and backside just a little bigger, and made her waist and hips slimmer than before. To make the changes, she poked her nude body here and there with her fingertips, ran her palms lightly along her skin, and patted herself all over. Lastly, she increased and decreased the amount of pubic hair she had until she decided it had been fine to begin with.
  “I’d gotten attached to looking like a high school girl, but it would look pretty bad for this scenario.”
  “Really? You liked that form, Kishiyu?”
  We were having this discussion in Kishiyu’s room in the dorm but when I looked out the window, I saw three or four kitsune hanging upside down, peering in at us.
  “Hey!” I said, raising my voice. I was beginning to relish the act of snapping back at kitsune who were older than me. They ignored me and continued chattering happily:
  “You’re a weird kid, Kishiyu.”
  “Do you like looking like that?”
  “Do humans like girls that look like that?”
  “Everyone!” I cut in, “I taught you this in class! If you actually listened you’d know the answer!”
  “I like it,” Kishiyu replied, her voice overflowing with confidence, “I like looking like this.” With that, as if she were embarrassed, she wrapped her arms around her torso and avoided making eye contact with the other kitsune.
  One by one the kitsune fell from their place above the window.
  “You’re not shy at all, you’re just good at acting like it!” the last kitsune said as they fell.
  “It’s quite a talent,” I turned Kishiyu around and nodded at her. The forms, gestures, and abilities that humans should be proud of having weren’t in agreement with our kitsune values; the others found them weird and would rather just frolic around and play tricks. There could be no doubt that Kishiyu, who had never once displayed that type of bad behavior, had talent.
  “I don’t know if I would call it a talent, really…” Kishiyu was still naked and she clamped her elbows to her side and covered her face with both hands. In April, Kishiyu waited for the most opportune moment to make contact with Fujiwara. She joined a major corporation in a career-track position. Even though she had just started the job, the humans at the company were convinced she’d been working there for three years already. Since humans have simple minds, and once they have been convinced of something they almost never reverse their decision about it, it was easy to glamour them. Naturally, one of the elements in that spell was having Kishiyu’s company and Fujiwara’s company sit next to each other during a picnic under the spring cherry blossoms. As the drunken revelry extended into the evening, the boundary between the two companies blurred, people began to mingle freely, and Fujiwara found Kishiyu. His first impression of her, as he told one of his coworkers later, was that he “thought some model or music idol had shown up at the party.” Kishiyu and Fujiwara quickly grew friendly. Kishiyu’s innate ability for conversation far exceeded the basics we taught in our conversation classes at school. That night at the party, as Kishiyu rubbed shoulders with Fujiwara, she confessed to him about her unhappy upbringing. The story was that her mother had died when Kishiyu was a young girl, and her stepmother—jealous of Kishiyu’s beauty, intelligence, and youth—began to bully her, which caused discord in the home until even Kishiyu’s father shunned her. She had told herself that she was an adult and all on her own now, and that she was now at a point in her life where she was beginning to live her own most fabulous life. Kishiyu made her small shoulders quiver slightly and gave Fujiwara a sad smile. Fujiwara was unable to resist her. That night, people probably thought that Fujiwara invited Kishiyu back to his bachelor condo, but that wasn’t what actually happened. It seems that they skipped out on their respective after-parties and instead sat opposite each other at a cafe and discussed all manner of things.
  “It’s not right to stay at someone’s house so soon after meeting them. People would think I’m easy,” Kishiyu explained to me, after she had returned to the school. That was a perfect response.
  Thereafter, Fujiwara was completely engrossed with Kishiyu. He started to spend every free moment that he had with her, and Kishiyu, who had been gauging the appropriate amount of time, finally agreed to stay at Fujiwara’s apartment during the rainy season. This increased Fujiwara’s enamorment to the point where he professed that couldn’t possibly live apart from her any longer.
  “Ah, that time already,” Kishiyu said as she packed up her dorm room in preparation for cohabiting with Fujiwara. I turned into a small kitsune stuffed animal that Kishiyu took with her. In regard to Kishiyu’s decision to plunge into premarital cohabitation, the faculty had been torn on whether it was allowable or not, but she didn’t care. Kishiyu did care, however, about how Fujiwara’s parents would react to it. His parents were well aware that she was a graduate of the famous and prestigious Foxy Academy. They raised no objections to their son’s decision. Upon gaining their approval, Kishiyu whispered to stuffed-animal-me, “These days a lot of people don’t register the marriage until children come along,” and then one day, she indeed become pregnant.

  Kishiyu and Fujiwara became bound in matrimony. Just as Kishiyu had planned, they purchased one of the newly built condos on Sanjō and moved in as husband and wife. At the school, the students, and possibly even some of the faculty, were placing bets on when Kishiyu would get sick of her new life. Up until the month before she was due to give birth, Kishiyu continued working full time at her firm. She put on full display all of the techniques that were taught to her at the school. Namely, she made three perfect meals a day—breakfast, bentō lunches, and dinner—every day, and soon Fujiwara’s button downs began to fit tightly. There wasn’t a strand of hair on the floor, nor a closet that was left unorganized. She gave each room a more sophisticated feel by adding indirect lighting and she bought arrangements of seasonal flowers, which she placed here and there around the house. Needless to say, she never let the water go bad, or the stems get moldy, and Fujiwara never once saw flowers wither or other unseemly signs of floral decay. Kishiyu never got the morning sickness that is so common in humans, nor did she ever show any of the tiredness that would be expected in such situations. She kept her appearance sparkling and fresh at all times. Furthermore, diligent Kishiyu never failed to buy fashion magazines and conduct meticulous research, so that she could continue to dress in ways most appealing to humans.
  Before long, Kishiyu took the maternity leave that was unnecessary for her but customary in human society, allowed herself to be admitted to an equally unnecessary hospital and gave birth to a baby boy. That boy was so beautiful that not only the young couple and the Fujiwara grandparents—who came running over at the news—but even the obstetrician and nurses all shouted in amazement at his beauty. To put this a slightly different way, we kitsune concluded that since so many people unanimously said he was beautiful, he must have been exceedingly beautiful to them. I know I didn’t find him to be particularly enjoyable, likely because Kishiyu gave me, still immobilized as a stuffed animal, to the baby who then began gumming on me. I was completely dumbfounded and immediately stopped being a stuffed animal. I was getting sick of the routine anyway. From then on, I spent my time transformed as one of the flowers in the house (which Kishiyu continued to keep perfectly clipped even now that she was a mother), or an accessory of hers, or a piece of dinnerware, or a bag, or a book.
  Kishiyu returned to work a year later. She continued to make colorful, hearty breakfasts, and healthy bentō lunches. She would drop her son off at nursery school then go to work. She would pick him up again and go grocery shopping, then return home and make wonderful low-calorie, multi-dish dinners. She’d clean up and give her son a bath and put him to bed, then she’d bathe herself, and then wash and iron the laundry. She’d keep an eye on all the nooks and crannies of the house and if there was a problem, she would clean it promptly. If Fujiwara had any demands, she would, of course, fulfill them. Days off would be spent in the company of Fujiwara’s parents, or Fujiwara’s co-workers, bosses, and subordinates. She bathed in the praise from them about her proffered food and a house that could never possibly be called disorganized and instead of losing her own beauty, Kishiyu only became more beautiful with each passing day. Among all the praise that was directed her way, “good wife, wise mother” was often mixed in, and I was glad that our project was going well.
  We would hear things such as “I want to trade my wife in for one of those!” or “Would you trade wives with me?” or “Of course a wife from Foxy Academy is on another level,” were the other statements frequently heard, and it became a real worry that we might not have enough kitsune ready to meet the demand. The plump child was the very picture of health, and every day he was dressed in fashionable clothes that Kishiyu picked out. Fujiwara’s chest was constantly puffed up with pride. Kishiyu’s ability to focus was amazing. Never once, even after her husband and child were sleeping soundly, did she return to her kitsune body. The image that brilliant Kishiyu created as she constantly worked to refine and update the notion of “good wife, wise mother” never once deviated from the image that humans expected, not even an inch.
About the time the boy turned three, Kishiyu suddenly got bored. Back at the school, kitsune had long since gotten bored themselves with betting on when Kishiyu would get bored, so no winner emerged.
  It started with a dog. Kishiyu became friends with some of the other mothers who would exchange greetings at their children’s nursery school, and so she had many opportunities to see dogs being kept as pets. This, it seems, is what got Kishiyu thinking. For the record here: to regular foxes, dogs are an object of fear. They are chased by dogs, and there are no small number of deaths and injuries. But to kitsune, dogs are just dogs. To say nothing of the fact that there’s not even a one in a million chance of a dog seeing our true form to begin with. Whether with our hands when we take on human form or with our paws as kitsune, dogs happily take treats from us and let us pet them, all while wagging their tails in complete bliss. There’s nothing to it. So it definitely wasn’t about Kishiyu being afraid of dogs. As she was deep in these troubling thoughts, she came to talk to me. I was at this point one of the flowers in a vase, and I was playing around with inhaling water up my stem and then pushing it back down again. It was the middle of the night. Fujiwara and the boy were fast asleep. Fujiwara probably thought Kishiyu was asleep as well, but she could go for several years without sleeping and see no ill effects.
  “Hey, hey...can I talk to you for a minute? It’s, um, about my husband.”
  “What’s the matter?”
  “Don’t you think he’s like a dog? Even though he’s human.”
  “Huh? What do you mean?”
  “It’s just, I keep thinking he’s like a dog.”
  “Oh, you mean that, like, you go to such great lengths to do all this stuff and he doesn’t do anything. Is that how he’s like a dog?”
  “Maybe...To me humans are kind of cute, and they’re good to keep around, but I don’t need a dog.”
  Uh oh, I thought, even though thinking that dogs are cute is the natural human response, and it was Kishiyu we were talking about here, who could imitate human feelings as naturally as breathing.
  “Have you … gotten bored?”
  Kishiyu looked at me.
  “Something like that,” she said. Suddenly, Kishiyu disappeared from my sight. I shakily extended my stem until I could see under the shelves that the vase was sitting on. Kishiyu had turned back into a kitsune for the first time in years and was sitting on the floor looking small and quiet. Kishiyu said she was walking out on everything, and I followed her.
  “What about the boy? Will you bring him with us to raise among the kitsune?”
  “Huh? Oh, I don’t care,” Kishiyu replied offhandedly, “I’ve raised it up until now. It’s someone else’s problem now.”
  Kishiyu and I ran through the dark streets of Kyoto. Kishiyu loped ahead of me, her pelt smoothed down by the night wind, her round, fluffy tail flowing valiantly behind her.
The Yamashiro Kowata Junior and Senior High School for Girls had managed to just barely hang on. Because there were so many kitsune involved in the project, if any of them got bored another kitsune would begin taking the lessons seriously, and when that one got bored, the kitsune from before would come back and take up the mantle again … and so on and so forth.
  Kishiyu, her pelt shining, and I were welcomed back as we jauntily returned to the school. Normally, there would be an investigation of dereliction of duties, the others greatly respected that she had brought a kitsune child into the world and then left him in human society. The reason being that when that child became an adult, he would surely pair with a human woman, and their progeny would have kitsune blood, however diluted. There were plenty of kitsune frolicking and making merry even though they did not know why we were having the party. After all, we’d only been immersed in human society for a mere four or five years. Many of the kitsune came up to Kishiyu to talk.
  “I thought I hadn’t seen you around in a while. Where were you? Oh, okay, you were with the humans!” one said, somersaulting around her. Another raised her face from a saké barrel, “You were gone from school this whole time? You were with the humans? Really? Huh …”
“Hey, hey Kishiyu, what were the humans like? Were they interesting?” This was the only time that she replied, seriously, “Okay, I’ll tell you, humans are pathetic. They have to do all of these things and make all their own decisions there are so many things they can’t do, so they blame themselves! It’s so pointless because they’re just so dumb. It will be so much better for them if they are reborn as kitsune like us!”
  Kishiyu got drunk and celebrated, and, the next morning, she had no qualms about the husband and son she left behind, as if none of it had ever happened. However, I was a member of the faculty and couldn’t cut ties so easily, so I was sent from time to time to observe their lives. Fujiwara, upon not being able to discern Kishiyu’s whereabouts, was out of his mind for awhile, his heart grievously wounded, but after ten years he remarried. Kishiyu’s son is thought to be human, but he carries our kitsune blood, which is evident in his good looks and ability to do everything skillfully, so he appears to be living a good life. The Yamashiro Kowata Junior and Senior High School for Girls Project is at a standstill now, but maybe it is more that invading human society was really nothing more than a way to pass the time to begin with anyway, so there is no problem with the project being at a standstill. The Yamashiro Kowata Junior and Senior High School for Girls is now just a place for carefree kitsune to visit when they want to play at being human.

Mac Gill is pursuing an MA in Library & Information Science, an MFA in Literary Translation, and a graduate certificate in Public Digital Humanities, all at the University of Iowa. Her primary research focuses on The Tale of Genji ,  a digital humanities project, can be seen on her website, She has also translated works by Takiguchi Yūshō and Arai Takako.