Today (Saturday, September 23, 2023) is one of the rabbitiest days we’re ever going to see. That’s because the fourth Saturday of September is often celebrated as International Rabbit Day, and that 2023 is the year of the rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac. To commemorate the occasion, I thought I’d retell a myth that’s referenced in lots of Japanese media: 因幡の白兎 (Inaba no Shiro Usagi, The White Hare of Inaba)!
You may not have realized it, but a lot of Japanese media makes reference to the Hare of Inaba. Of course he makes an appearance in mythology-heavy series like Touhou Project, Shin Megami Tensei and Ōkami, but also in more unexpected places like Rhythm Heaven and Dead or Alive. Given that it’s often called Japan’s first love story, I guess it’s not too surprising that it would spread throughout the cultural consciousness.
The story begins on a cluster of islands northwest of Kyōto called the Oki islands. On the shore of one of the islands sits our eponymous rabbit, staring at the Japanese mainland. Despite their incredible edibility, rabbits are very curious creatures, so the white hare naturally longs to see what Japan is like. Of course, swimming is out of the question—aside from not being very good at it, cold, wet fur is a death sentence for such a tiny mammal. So, the cunning lagomorph hatches a plan.
Approaching the shore, the hare shouts “Hey, 鰐 (wani)! If you’re such hot shit, how come there’s more rabbits than wani?” At this provocation, a few wani surface. Wondering what a wani is? You’re not alone! Just as 兎 (usagi) doesn’t differentiate between rabbits, hares, and other lagomorphs, wani is also ambiguous. While 鰐 (wani) is understood in modern parlance as ‘crocodile’, long ago it used to refer to sharks. Given that we’re dealing with a story set when gods roamed the Earth, it may even be a wanizame, or crocoshark, a Japanese mythological sea beast.
This is just speculation on my part, but as 鰐 somewhat resembles a combination of 魚 (fish) and 顎 (jaw), it may have been used indiscriminately to describe to anything that living in water that had big, scary teeth. This carelessness may have led to the creation of the crocodile-shark hybrid in Japanese myth.
After some debate as to whose species is more prolific, the hare proposes a solution. “Line all your wani brethren up, nose-to-tail, and I’ll count you. Then, we’ll know whether there’s more rabbits or wani!” The wani agree to his terms, and line up.
With alacrity, the bunny hops from one wani to another, counting. As he reaches the last one, he can’t help but boast. “As if I care about something as dumb as which tribe is bigger! I just wanted a bridge from Oki to Japan, and you all fell for it!” The hare had run his mouth too soon, however; enraged, the final wani slams its jaw shut, just barely grabbing the speedy bunny’s fur. In one of the earliest “Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object” battles known to man, the rabbit’s momentum carries him to Japan’s shore, but at a terrible cost: his fur has been torn from his skin!
As the rabbit lays on the Japanese shore writhing in pain, a group of 八十神 (yasogami, eighty gods) approach. As an aside, there probably weren’t actually eighty of them; 80 tends to be another way to say “lots and lots” in Japanese. Anyway, the rabbit desperately begs them to assuage the pain. Unfortunately, the gods take the opportunity to make it worse by telling the freshly wounded-rabbit to do things like roll around on the sandy shore, wash himself in the ocean’s saltwater, and dry himself with the fierce mountain breeze. After following their malicious directions, the formerly-white rabbit was little more than a dry, stinging, fading husk.
After the rest of the men have had their fun and moved on, a lone, heavily-burdened straggler named Ōkuninushi arrives. Upon learning what happened to the almost-dead hare, Ōkuninushi replies, “Oh, yeah, those guys are my brothers. Well, half-brothers, really. We’re all going to see which of us Princess Yakami of Inabi will marry. They made me carry all their stuff. As you’ve no doubt realized, they’re a bunch of jerks. They gave you bad advice on purpose. Try cleansing yourself in river water then rolling in the cattails you’ll find nearby.”
The hare takes his advice, and the clean, cool river water makes him feel better right away. Then, when he jumped on the cattails, they burst into fluff that stuck to his damp skin and restored his coat. Racing back to Ōkuninushi to show his gratitude, the re-whitened rabbit declares, “None of your brothers will marry the princess. You may be last in line, but you’ll be first in her heart!” and devotes himself wholly to Ōkuninushi’s cause.
In the Kojiki (a book that chronicles Japanese myths and unifies them into one story), the white rabbit sort of disappears at this point. However, the princess does indeed wait for Ōkuninushi to arrive, so we can infer that the rabbit used his incredible speed to get to arrive before Ōkuninushi’s half-brothers and tell her what a nice guy he was, Puss in Boots-style.
The tale continues on. In an attempt to stop him from marrying the princess, Ōkuninushi’s half-brothers try to kill him. To prevent this, he visits the realm of the dead, falls in love, and forgets all about the princess as he begins a 12 Labors-esque series of impossible tasks. The Hare of Inaba meets the sun goddess Amaterasu at one point and guides her to Isegahara, which is basically Mount Olympus…. As with other myths, the tales are interwoven, and there’s rarely a satisfying stopping point.
Still, I find it pretty interesting that, while the rabbit tends to get the last laugh in a way consistent with other mythological protrayals of rabbits like Br’er Rabbit, he also takes his fair share of licks. He makes it to the Japanese mainland, but his shortsightedness allows the crocodiles to inflict serious harm on him. Ōkuninushi’s half-brothers con him into nearly killing himself, but he stymies their attempts to marry the princess. The story has certainly left its mark on Japanese pop culture; it’s been inextricably associated with rabbits.
Thanks for reading this far! If you know any more Hare of Inaba references, post them in the comments below! And if you found this article interesting, please share it with your friends and follow us on Twitter for more Japanese (pop-)cultural knowledge.
If you didn’t get enough cultural cruft from this article, I promise you will from Matthew‘s exhaustive re-translation and breakdown of Touhou‘s Japanese Goblin meme! Or maybe you’d like to learn about how Japan’s military history made a Trails into Azure scene impossible to translate.