Usagi, or the rabbit, is a charming motif for kimono. It is used in part because of the "cute" appeal, but also because of the legend about the rabbit who lives in the moon and pounds mochi. It is also one of the twelve animals in the Eastern zodiac.
Most usagi depicted today have the characteristics of European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), but before their introduction usagi referred to the Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus), a species endemic to Japan. The Japanese hare has shorter ears relative to its head, a rangier body, and the ability to change its coat to white in winter. There is one primitive species of rabbit native to Japan, the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi), which has short ears and black fur and only survives today on two small islands of the coast of Okinawa.
When European rabbits were first introduced by European traders at the beginning of the Meiji era, they sparked a craze for breeding as pets. The most valued coloration was a sarasa (tri-color or calico) coat and huge amounts of money were spent on speculation on the exotic new breed. The government first tried to control speculation through taxing the rabbit sellers, but as the speculation and rabbit related frauds continued to increase the government banned the meetings of rabbit fanciers and criminalized rabbit breeding. The rabbit craze lasted from 1872-1874.
Seasonal Use, Exceptions & Pairings
- Often paired with the moon (tsuki no usagi motif) due to the myth of the Rabbit in the Moon
- Due to tidal influences from the moon, also often paired with waves (nami no usagi motif)
Older pre-Meiji designs depict a hare, with shorter ears and a more muscular and lithe body. For an example, look to the anthropomorphized depictions of usagi in Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga as compared to the post-Meiji designs emphasis on the rounded bodies and longer ears of the imported European rabbit.
When paired with flowers in a compact shape,it is known as hana usagi (花兎).
Usagi are auspicious as they breed relatively rapidly and easily. Furthermore, a white Japanese hare out of season was regarded as an omen or a messenger of the gods.
Motif in Literature & Other Usage
Buddhist Sasajakata - The rabbit in the moon
There are innumerable folktales about the rabbit, but the one that stands out and is ingrained in the Japanese culture is that of the Buddhist Śaśajâtaka (Jataka Tale 316). A monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon, believing a demonstration of great virtue would earn a great reward.
When an old man begged for food, the monkey gathered fruits from the trees and the otter collected fish, while the jackal wrongfully pilfered a lizard and a pot of milk-curd. The rabbit, who knew only how to gather grass, instead offered its own body, throwing itself into a fire the man had built. The rabbit, however, was not burnt. The old man revealed himself to be Śakra and, touched by the rabbit's virtue, drew the likeness of the rabbit on the moon for all to see. It is said the lunar image is still draped in the smoke that rose when the rabbit cast itself into the fire.
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Authors & Contributors
Author/s: Diane Quintal (Moonblossom (IG Username))