Japan is home to a particularly rich folklore, and as in other countries animals figure prominently in its folktales. Among the creatures that colorfully appear in those yarns are a couple of tricksters—badgers and rabbits—and their escapades are recounted in many English translations of those old stories. And all this is fine—except for the fact that the badgers are not badgers at all, but primitive members of the dog family called tanuki, or raccoon dogs (badgers do exist in Japan, but they do not figure in folktales). And the rabbit is likewise not a rabbit, but a hare.
Usagi is the name applied in Japan to any lagomorph — rabbits, hares and pikas (small creatures with rounded ears and short limbs found in cold climates, including Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido). And though usagi are native to Japan, its only rabbit is the Amami black rabbit, a primitive species endemic to the island of Amami Oshima in the far southwest of the country. Aside from pikas, all other usagi are hares.
With their long ears, long rear legs and short tails, hares and rabbits resemble each other, but there are marked differences. Rabbits mostly live underground in burrows or the extensive communal dens called warrens, where the young are born naked, blind and helpless. Unlike rabbits, hares tend not to be social creatures. Hares live above ground, and their nest is a simple depression in the grass. As a result, hares are born fully furred and with their eyes open, and they essentially have to fend for themselves from the outset. They quickly learn how to find food, escape predators and are ready to begin mating before they are a year old. One feature that hares and rabbits do have in common is in contrast to their cute, cuddly image when they exhibit the somewhat less endearing behavior of consuming their own excrement: in this way, it can pass through their digestive tract a second time for further processing.
Outside the world of zoology, one of the most familiar ways in which hares make an appearance in Japanese folklore is with that creature in the moon. A lone hare is supposed to live on the moon and be engaged in pounding rice in a mortar using a pestle to produce the rice cake known as mochi. This legend is common in other East Asian folklore and is based on the supposed resemblance of the light and dark markings on the moon to the shape of a hare constantly pounding the mortar. Though quite what the hare actually does with all that vast quantity of avidly produced mochi never seems to be specified.
Perhaps the best-known folktale involving a hare also includes a tanuki and is known as Kachikachi yama (crackling mountain). A tanuki so annoyed one old couple that the husband tied it to a tree, intending to kill and cook it later. The tanuki pleaded with the wife to release it, whereupon it murdered the woman and made soup out of her instead. After assuming the woman’s shape, the tanuki then served the soup to the man and escaped after telling him what it had done. A friendly hare decided to avenge the woman. He persuaded the tanuki to carry some firewood, to which it set fire, badly burning the tanuki’s back. The hare then offered to treat the burns with a poultice containing chili pepper, thereby causing the tanuki even greater misery. Finally, the hare tricked the tanuki into boarding a boat made of mud, which duly sank. Thus, the wife’s death was avenged.
Those with an affection for lagomorphs should head for the tiny island of Okunoshima in Japan’s Inland Sea. Okunoshima is known as “rabbit island” owing to its huge numbers of resident feral rabbits, though the actual source of all those rabbits is unclear. A video on Okunoshima showing a tourist being hotly pursued by a desperate mob of stampeding bunnies went viral, with almost half a million views the day after its release. Dogs and cats are banned from Okunoshima, and given rabbits’ proverbial capacity for breeding, it seems rather unlikely that the island’s nickname is going to disappear anytime soon.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
Note: This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of the Japan Journal.