Inari (Inara) is the ancient Japanese god—or goddess—of rice and fertility. Myths show Inari as both male and female. He is able to take the shape of a fox and uses foxes as his messengers. Inari was married to Ukemochi.
Each year Inari comes down from the mountains to the rice fields. He is said to take the shape of a spider to torment the wicked and teach them how to behave properly.
Inari stocked the land with rice, the sea with fish, and mountains and forests with game. When he entertained the god Tsukiyomi, the moon god became angry that these gifts had come from Inari’s mouth and killed Inari. Plants, cattle, and silkworms sprang from his body. (In some versions of this story, Susano-Wo is the killer, and in others, Ukemochi is killed.)
Artists show Inari as an old man—or as a woman with long, flowing hair. Inara (the female version of the god) is honored in a festival each spring when rice cultivation begins. Scholars link Inara to the Indian god Lashmi and Dewi Sri of Java. The Japanese rice god is also sometimes connected to Uga-no-Mitama, the goddess of agriculture.
Many see Inari as a symbol of prosperity and friendship. Fushimi-Inara, Inari’s central temple, was built around 700 in Kyoto. The cultivation of rice remains an important part of Japanese society even today, and shrines to Inari are very common.
An old legend about Inari’s ability to guide selfish people to a more generous nature goes like this: A wealthy man was considered the meanest man in the village where he lived. He terrorized his neighbors and treated his servants poorly. He was also very stingy. Worried about being robbed, he carried his money sewn into the lining of his obi, or belt. One day, he threatened to dismiss his servants even though they had always faithfully carried out their duties.
The servants prayed to Inari, who heard their fears and decided to act. The next day, the wealthy man developed a fever and collapsed in his bed. He slept for many days and nights, awaking on the tenth day to see a kindly old priest at his side. When the wealthy man asked the priest to pray for him, the priest replied, none too kindly, “I thought the oni (demons) would have carried you off to hell a long time ago.” The wealthy man yelled for his servants to remove the old priest, but they merely looked in and left without a word. The priest then mentioned that he knew a remedy for this illness: the wealthy man should give half of his money to the poor. This time, the wealthy man was so incensed he snatched a dagger from under his pillow and tried to stab the priest. But the priest merely stepped aside, and the sick man fell back onto the bed.
“I heard that you wanted to dismiss your servants,” the priest said.
“I’ve come here every night while you were ill and drained your blood, making you suffer as much as you have made others suffer for your meanness.”
And with these words, he blew out the light and disappeared. Terrified, the wealthy man felt as if some horrible creature was there in the room with him. He struck out blindly with his dagger and screamed. His servants ran into the room and shone a lantern on the bed.
There, lying by the old man’s side, was the claw of a monster. But there was no sign of the creature, except for an enormous spider on the windowsill. The spider creature cried out that he was the god Inari, and he had come in the guise of both priest and spider to warn the man against attacking and mistreating those who gave him his wealth and those who cared for him.
At these words, the wealthy man was ashamed and repented, promising to give half of his money to the poor and to treat his servants with kindness and fairness from then on.