For my latest work, Oasis, I drew heavily on Japanese mythology. My main character, a shape-shifter (female) warrior named Kiana, shifts into a fox, and by moonlight can take a hybrid fox/human form.
I don’t call her a kitsune, but that’s what she is.
A kitsune is a Japanese fox spirit, a trickster or a seductress often, as well as a great protector and a source of wisdom and power. They’re marvelous creatures, and I created a race of them in my fictional world.
I peopled my world with other creatures from Japanese mythology, from eagle-human hybrids called karura to creepy disembodied heads called nekekubi. But I altered these creatures subtly, to make them creepier or more magical, or to endow them with powers that mythology may not have given them. I also changed their names, because I did not intend to lift Japanese mythological culture out of its historical context and paint it directly onto my new novel—plus, the spelling would’ve done me in.
But I felt kinda skeevy doing it.
We’re so used to a fairly small subset of mythological creatures that we don’t really think too much about where they came from. Vampires exist in many (if not most cultures) but there’s a fairly strong Western tradition of vampire mythology. Likewise, werewolves are generally thought to be a European invention. Every culture has its small folk or fairies, and even demons exist across a variety of lands with their respective hells. Most of our supernatural creatures are public domain, part of a worldwide cultural fear of and fascination with beings more powerful than we can comprehend.
So why did I feel skeevy about stealing from the Japanese?
The answer is pretty complicated.
One, I don’t know much about Japanese cultures, and I felt disrespectful, taking their stories and twisting them for my own ends. And two, the U.S. and the global “West” have a long history of stealing things from the East and passing them off as novelties.
And third, I’m just a glutton for punishment.
At any rate, I did my research and learned about the creatures I transplanted into my world, and I tried to give them at least a little bit of authentic flavor. The fact remains, though, that I took my inspiration from a mythos I have no legitimate claim to. I found a tradition I liked, and I corrupted it and had my way with it.
That’s not so simple, either, though. Loads of fantasy novels take on other existing cultures: Guy Gavriel Kay does it beautifully, and Ilona Andrews works creatures from many nations’ fairytales into her works. No one owns the stories of myth and magic passed down for generations.
In the end, what I created is something new entirely. It’s inspired by Japanese mythology, but it makes no claim to be authentic. The Japanese stories and creatures run like a golden thread through a tapestry that I wove: they’re a beautifying part of it, but they’re not the only feature.
And if we’re respectful, does it matter if we’re using magic that’s foreign to us?
I’m not sure.
I don’t actually have a good answer to this one, readers. What do you think of folklore in fantasy? Is it public domain? Have I joined a tradition of cultural abuse and callous repurposing? What works do you know that successfully blend cultures?