Inari Ōkami (Japanese: 稲荷大神), also called Ō-Inari (大稲荷), is the Japanese kami of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake, of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success, and one of the principal kami of Shinto. In earlier Japan, Inari was also the patron of swordsmiths and merchants. Inari appears to have been worshiped since the founding of a shrine at Inari Mountain in 711 AD, although some scholars believe that worship started in the late 5th century.
By the 16th century, Inari had become the patron of blacksmiths and the protector of warriors, and worship of Inari spread across Japan in the Edo period. Inari is a popular figure in both Shinto and Buddhist beliefs in Japan. More than one-third (32,000) of the Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari. Modern corporations, such as cosmetic company Shiseido, continue to revere Inari as a patron kami, with shrines atop their corporate headquarters.
Inari's foxes, or kitsune, are pure white and act as their messengers.
According to myth, Inari, as a goddess, was said to have come to Japan at the time of its creation amidst a harsh famine that struck the land. "She [Inari] descended from Heaven riding on a white fox, and in her hand she carried sheaves of cereal or grain. Ine, the word now used for rice, is the name for this cereal. What she carried was not rice but some cereal that grows in swamps. According to legend, in ancient times Japan was water and swamp land.
When reading about Shintoism, there’s one deity whose names you’ll see over and over again – Inari Ōkami, Ō-Inari, or just Inari. This kami (deity, spirit) is neither the most powerful deity in Shintoism, nor a Creator or a Ruler god of some kind.
And yet, Inari is the most popular and most commonly worshiped Shinto deity. About a third of all Shinto temples in Japan are devoted to this peculiar kami. So, who exactly is Inari and why is she or he so popular?
Inari is the Shinto kami of rice, foxes, agriculture, fertility, trade, industry, prosperity, and much more. Depicted as an old man, a young and beautiful woman, or an androgenous deity, Inari’s worship differs greatly depending on where in Japan you are.
Rice, foxes, and fertility seem the constants in Inari’s worship, as they are the base symbols of Inari. The very name Inari comes from Ine Nari or Ine ni Naru, i.e. rice, to carry rice, or rice load. Needless to say, with rice being such a popular food in Japan, the widespread popularity of Inari's cult is quite understandable.
As for the foxes – while their (positive) connection with rice is difficult to decipher, foxes are a popular symbol in Japan. The famous kitsune spirits (literally translating as fox in Japanese) were magical foxes with up to nine tails that could transform into people. Their preferred humanoid form was that of a beautiful young woman, which they used to trick, seduce, but also often help people.More importantly – foxes and kitsune spirits are said to be servants and messengers of Inari. The benevolent kitsune serve the rice kami whereas the malevolent ones rebel against the deity. In fact, many depictions of the deity, regardless of their gender, show Inari with foxes or riding a large white kitsune.
Inari is also a kami of dozens of different and completely unrelated things. She is a kami of agriculture, as well as of trade and prosperity. Fertility also remains a large part of Inari’s symbolism, not just in an agricultural sense but in terms of procreation as well.
In later periods, Inari became a kami of industry and progress as an extension of the prosperity symbolism. Tea and sake also became associated with Inari although we can’t really say why. Swordsmiths, blacksmiths, and swordsmen fell under Inari’s favor too, during Japan’s more militant periods in the Middle Ages.
Inari even became a patron kami of fishermen, artists, and prostitutes (not geishas) – as many of Inari’s shrines were built in the sections of towns and cities where these groups of people lived.
Such aspects associated with Inari were typically localized in one part of Japan or another. Eventually, some of them spread while others remain local.
Inari doesn’t just symbolize various things; they seem to be more than just one deity too. That’s why the kami is portrayed as both male, female, or androgynous – because it’s literally not just one person.
For example, Inari, the old man, is said to be married to the goddess of agriculture Uke Mochi. In other myths, Inari is herself an agricultural and fertility goddess with many names. Inari is even present in many Japanese Buddhist sects. In Shingon Buddhism, she is associated with the Buddhist concept of the divine feminine daikiniten as that too is connected to foxes.
There’s also the connection with another Buddhist deity Benzaiten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods. Inari is also often equated with the Shinto grain deity Toyouke. In fact, she or he is often viewed as a variant of either of the many different Shinto grain, rice, and agricultural deities.
The reason behind this is simple – Japan’s islands used to be made up of dozens of different small city-states and self-governing areas. This had continued for centuries before the eventual, slow unification of the country. So, as this happened, and Inari’s cult started spreading through the land, many such local agricultural deities began to be substituted by or conjoined with Inari.
Inari isn’t just a humanoid deity that gives rice and grain to people, of course. Despite the fact that most of her myths are localized and not widely spread, a through-line can be noticed – Inari is a shapeshifter.
This is a quality that the kami shares with her kitsune fox spirits who are also famous for their shapeshifting abilities. Like them, Inari also most commonly shapeshifts into a fox. Inari is also known to occasionally transform into a giant snake, a dragon, or a giant spider too.
Because Inari is essentially a collection of many local agricultural deities, there isn’t a solid base of myths about this kami as there is for others. One of the few widespread myths about Inari depicts her as a female kami that comes to Japan shortly after the islands’ creation. Inari came precisely at the time of a severe and long-lasting famine, riding on a white fox, and brought with them sheaves of grain to help the people in their time of need.The myth isn’t really anything elaborate, but it perfectly encapsulates what Inari is to the followers of Shintoism.