Bebe Taian: Rabbit in the Moon Stories

November 23, 2010

Rabbit in the Moon Stories

Although it is very late in the season, I wanted to tell about the Rabbit in the Moon after I purchased an obi this week. It was a surprise purchase. I had originally been intent on a new kimono for my birthday in February, knowing that only sea mail was available for most shipping from Japan now, and that can take months. Even my mother tried to help me watch that kimono, but it was not to be. That same night, Ichiroya listed a deep blue obi with rabbit motifs on round pale purple and teal circles. Rabbits are a favourite motif, and are not too commonly seen on higher-end kimono items!

"Moon Rabbit", also known as "Jade Rabbit", is a Japanese folkstory borrowed from China that most people have probably heard of, or have at least heard allusions to, even if they don't know the story. Many allusions are made to Moon Rabbit in Japanese animation and games, and now are sometimes heard in the West, too.

In the West, we look for 'the man in the moon'- a "face" that we see caused by shadows of craters on the moon. In the East, it is a rabbit. There are two stories about the rabbit in the moon.

The first is Chinese in origin. The story has many versions about how the events happened, but all involve the same elements: Chang'e, her husband Houyi (an archer), and ten suns who are the transformed bodies of the Jade Emperors' ten sons.

Chang'e and her husband, Houyi, were first immortals in Heaven. Houyi was a great archer; his wife, a servant in the Heavenly Palace. The Jade Emperors' ten sons for some reason transformed themselves into ten suns, which began to scorch the earth. Unable to stop them, the Jade Emperor sent for Houyi to resolve this matter. Houyi was unable to stop the gods, and decided that in order to save the earth, he must shoot all down but one. The Jade Emperor, being furious over this solution, banished Houyi and Chang'e to earth, both losing their immortality. Chang'e was so distressed with life on earth that Houyi went travelling to look for a way to restore their immortality.

After a long, perilous journey, he met the Queen Mother of the West and received a pill or elixir of immortality. She warned that only half was needed for each person to become immortal, so the one would be enough for both Houyi and his wife. But Houyi slowly became selfish; he began to want only to restore his own life to achieve greatness. Houyi returned home with it and told Chang'e not to look in his case before leaving again. Chang'e, being curious, of course looked through her husbands' things and found the pill. Houyi returned home suddenly. Not wanting to be in trouble for her discovery, Chang'e either accidentally or intentionally swallowed the pill. She overdosed and began to float very high- all the way to the moon! Her husband tried to shoot her down so that she would not fly away, but could not bear to aim at her.

Chang'e now lives on the moon with a rabbit who makes elixirs of life and immortality, as well as a woodcutter punished by being sent to the moon to chop down a tree which heals itself after every cut. Every full moon of the 8th Lunar Month is a day in her honour. This is usually September or October, depending on the year, although the Japanese may sometimes hold it in late August according to the modern calendar.

The Japanese tale of this day is much different, however. It is a Buddhist story, like this:

A poor elderly man begged four animals for food on a day of the full moon (although some say three- rabbit, fox, and monkey). An otter, a jackal, a rabbit, and a monkey were asked to bring him something to eat. Each believing that helping the man would bring good fortune to themselves, they complied with his request. The monkey, being industrious, climbed to the tops of the trees and brought the man fruit to eat. The otter, being quick, caught fish in the river and brought them to the old man. The jackal, being cunning, stole a bottle of milk curd. The rabbit, knowing only how to gather grass, said he could do nothing else for the man but give him himself to eat, and threw himself onto the fire.

But the rabbit did not know that this was no ordinary beggar. He was really the God Taishakuten (Sakra), ruler of the highest level of Heaven still connected to the physical world of mortals. Because of the rabbits' willingness to sacrifice himself, the rabbit did not burn in the fire, and was rewarded by being drawn on the moon by Taishakuten-kami, where his memory became as immortal as the Gods themselves.

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