Japanese Language Blog

Kamikakushi – Spirited Away Posted by on Jun 8, 2021 in Culture, History, News, Traditions

Kamikakushi (神隠し) is a word that has been in Japanese culture for hundreds of years. It means “hidden by kami (god, deity, divinity, tengu, yamanba, oni, fox, or spirit)”, and often translated to “spirited away.”  You may have heard of Hayato Miyazaki’s movie.


Even in the present day, many people disappear in a blink of an eye (一瞬に isshunni).  And we call such incidents kamikakushi.  Historically, the Japanese have been fascinated by this – many folklores (民話 minwa) have been shared, and of course, many people know the movie “Spirited Away”  by Hayato Miyazaki.  Every year, many special TV programs are produced asking the public to call in any information on missing persons.  Usually, former FBI investigators and psychic investigators from overseas are invited to assist investigations.  As you can see, the programs are often viewed as entertainment at the expense (〜を犠牲にして 〜wo giseinishite) of victims’ families. But some victims’ families do participate just to keep the news alive.  TV producers also use actors/actresses as amnesia patients, asking the public to help to identify them.

Viewers are interested in the stories especially when the missing persons disappeared at the wink of an eye.  Recently, a young child disappeared at a wink of an eye at a campground without a trace. So kamikakushi is not a classical word but is very much used nowadays.

In folklore, foxes (狐 kitsune) and tanuki-dogs (狸 tanuki) also are blamed to be tricksters (いたずら者 itazuramono) and lead people into a mysterious world momentarily.  Do you play Animal Crossing, New Horizon on Nintendo Switch?  You see Redd (Tsunekichi) always tries to con you. And some argue that Tom Nook (Tanukichi) is the biggest scammer.

Image by Yvette van den Berg from Pixabay

Takashi Uchiyama, in his book titled “Why Japanese became not to be deceived by foxes” since 1965, describes several reasons by interviewing people.  Here are sometheories and conclusions taken from Kodansha Book Review.

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay





  • Japanese economy was in the highest drive to grow, and everything not related to the economy became obsolete (時代遅れの jidaiokureno)
  • Anything that cannot be explained by science is fake
  • Education has changed its emphasis to only require students to learn black and white – shades of grey, which had been appreciated by the culture for a long time, became obsolete
  • Changes in people’s perception of life and death
  • Destruction of nature that has been nurturing wild animals

If you talk to old people, they may still say “I was pinched by a fox,” (狐につままれる  kitsunenu tsumamareru) meaning something utterly unexpected happened, and “I was bewildered.” Tsugio Koyama talked about it in his essay that appeared on Muroran Minpo.

Here is a very brief summary:

In 1960, I was born in Samanicho, next to Erimo Penninsula.  Since I was a child, I heard stories of foxes deceiving people. People deceived by a fox ran deep into the forest never to be seen again. Grownups were so afraid of foxes.”

“When I was a freshman in college, I had a part-time job at a fisherman’s home in Erimo.  I was asked to go and wake someone up at home.  I started running, and an old woman spotted me and screamed.  She thought I was deceived by a fox and running towards the mountain.”

From older times, people attributed the disappearance of people to (〜のせいにする 〜no seinisuru) Kami but there have been many explanations for this. For instance, people might have chosen to disappear for many reasons, kidnapped, accidental death, and the sad old practice of killing/sending away family members to reduce the number of mouths to feed.  “Kamikakushi” has been a way to comfort oneself by believing that the missing loved one is safe and will return someday.  And in the past, it was a way to cover up killing or sending a family member to prostitution houses, for instance, or the elderly to mountains for a rural community to survive – also known as “kuchiberashi, (口減らし)” reducing the number of mouths to feed.

In the present day, approximately 90,000 people disappear annually in Japan.  While most of them are accounted for within a few days, about 1,000 are still missing.  In the days of security cameras everywhere in a city, it still is possible to disappear once you step out of the city light.  Many young children are missing without a trace, some for decades.  And parents are still trying to keep the story alive by participating in those TV programs and standing at a busy train station to hand out a flyer.  May they all reunite safely


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  1. Claudia:

    I love the phrase “pinched by a fox” to mean bewildered. I will start using it immediately!!!!

    • eriko1:

      @Claudia It will be interesting to survey people’s reaction when you say it. I am sure they will look like they are pinched by a fox.