A Sessho-seki, or “killing stone,” was found cracked in half this month in Nikko National Park, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Tokyo.
No one knows exactly what caused the stone to crack, but the cold winter months could have contributed to the cracking, said Nick Kapur, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.
Each winter, water could have seeped into the crack, frozen, then expanded, he said. However, many look for guidance from the myth, he added.
There are multiple versions of the legend, but it was believed Tamamo-no-Mae, a nine-tailed fox spirit, lay trapped in the rock for nearly 900 years.
Tamamo-no-Mae was known for her shape-shifting abilities, so she transformed herself into a beautiful woman and caught the eye of the emperor, Kapur said.
As she grew closer to the emperor, he fell gravely ill, Kapur said. A court astrologer used divination to determine Tamamo-no-Mae was the culprit, he said.
Once her plan was foiled, she fled into the wilderness, changing shapes to try and stay hidden, he said. However, samurai sent after her eventually caught up to the fox spirit, Kapur said.
When one of the warriors shot her with an arrow, her physical form was killed, so her spirit transformed into a stone, he said.
Legend goes that if you touch the stone, you die, hence the name killing stone, Kapur said.
There is no proof of the stone’s supernatural abilities, but its unique location may have given substance to the rumors, said Yoshiko Okuyama, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.
A spirit with a change of heart
The rock has become a top tourism site and skyrocketed in popularity, but it paled in comparison to the spirit’s fame, Okuyama said.
The fox spirit has made numerous appearances in modern Japanese media, often as the villain-turned-hero character, she said.
“More recent adaptations in manga and anime don’t want to portray women in a misogynistic way,” Okuyama said.
In older Japanese myths, the stories centered around evil female spirits out to undermine the power of males, Kapur said.
An omen for our time
After the stone cracked, people were quick to chime in on the timing of the breakage.
Others believed it was a good omen, saying she was released to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war on Ukraine, he said.
“If you’re in the mood to take this negatively, you certainly can, but if you want to take a positive spin on it, maybe this fox spirit is going to help us out in our time of need,” Kapur said.