Despite being cute, relatively unassuming animals, rabbits and hares are found in the myths and tales of a surprising number of countries. From the ancient Greek tales of the foolish hare losing a race to a tortoise because of its arrogance to the cunning trickster rabbits of Native American culture, the carrot-munching creatures are found throughout the world’s cultures and lore.
Of course, Japan is no exception; in these isles, the lovable furballs symbolize longevity, good luck and prosperity.
In this, the year of the rabbit, GaijinPot goes down the rabbit hole and looks at five ways that the bunny appears in Japanese culture.
1. Enshrined rabbits
Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, worships various deities called kami, some of which can take animal form. Some of these deities appear as rabbits and are enshrined in temples like the rabbit protectors of Tsuki shrine in Saitama. The rabbits offer a far more welcoming sight than the typical stone lion or ancient warrior protectors at other shrines.
As rabbits have so many children, many countries associate the fluffy furballs with giving birth. Japan is no exception, and the Okazaki shrine in Kyoto includes rabbit deities that are said to help worshippers conceive or ensure that their baby is born healthy.
Tottori’s Hakuto shrine enshrines a mythical animal known as the White Hare of Inaba. This hare was considered so trustworthy that it was allowed to officiate over the marriage of two of the greatest deities in Japanese history. Visit here to get the bunny’s blessing on your future marriage.
2. The year of the rabbit
As I write this, we are currently in the year of the rabbit according to the Japanese version of the Chinese zodiac. According to tradition, people born in the year of the rabbit tend to be gentler. Kindness and sensitivity are associated with the sign as is a strong sense of responsibility and making peace. As these are good things to have in a relationship, rabbit years are also considered great for working on relationships.
For the more fiscally minded, rabbit years are considered good years for financial matters and achieving success.
3. A proverb: Those that chase two rabbits catch neither
While rabbit years are considered good years to work on relationships and financial matters, it is also worthwhile bearing in mind a Japanese proverb about rabbits: 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず (those that chase two rabbits catch neither). This saying is often used to get people to focus on one thing and not keep trying to overstretch themselves.
4. Are rabbits birds?
A common trap for learners when they first learn kanji are the Japanese counters. Counters are used whenever things are counted in groups. For example, two animals are counted as 二匹. So far, so simple, but there are many confusing rules for animals including big animals being counted with a special counter 頭 and birds being counted as 羽. Oh, and strangely rabbits are also counted with 羽.
One of our favorite stories about how rabbits got this strange counter is that in the old days, they were relatively abundant, so folks naturally decided to eat them. However, because of the Buddhist doctrines at the time, there were strict prohibitions against eating meat at the temples. As a result, there was a decision to reclassify them as birds, which were fair game–pardon the pun–in the temple cooking pot. This apocryphal story explains why the unusual counter is used for rabbits.
5. The rabbit on the moon
When many western kids look up at the bright moon in the sky, they are often told that a man on the moon is looking down on them. On the other hand for Japanese kids, they see a rabbit.
The reason for the rabbit on the moon is complicated as it traces its origin to the Konjaku Monogatarishuu. In this ancient story, a rabbit, a monkey and a fox are on a quest for enlightenment, believing that being reborn as animals was evidence of being sinful in a previous life.
Upon seeing their sincere efforts to become enlightened, the deity Indra decided to test them. It transformed into a frail old man and ordered that if the animals truly desired to be good, they should help feed him. Despite the fox and monkey bringing back piles of food, the rabbit searched but couldn’t find anything.
Ashamed at being unable to nourish the old man, the rabbit returned. The man was disappointed at first, until the plucky animal offered itself as the meal instead, throwing itself onto the man’s fire so that he could at least get some grilled rabbit for sustenance. Indra was so impressed with the rabbit’s willingness to selflessly sacrifice itself that the shape of the rabbit was impressed on the moon.
This motif is found throughout classical and modern popular culture. It can be found in everything from Ippo’s classical artworks of a rabbit preparing mochi on the moon to Sailor Moon’s name Usagi Tsukino (Usagi is a rabbit in Japan and Tsukino means the moon) and arcs of Dragon Ball, Naruto, and JoJo spinoff Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan.
As you can see rabbits are deeply embedded in Japanese culture. Which of these stories did you like? Have you seen any rabbit statues around? Let us know in the comments.