Here is part 2 on the series regarding the folklore “White Rabbit of Inaba Country”, which will cover fun facts, real life comparisons, as well as certain research topics. Although introduced as a folklore to many kids, originally this was held with high esteem as a source of Japan’s origin story, as well as the rights of the Imperial line. Of course, this type of literature was only privy to nobles and influential clans as early as 700s, but was made available to the general public from around the mid 1600s, especially as literature in schools.
Here’s a list of some of the sources used as research material for this article:
Oyako de Tanoshimu Suizokukan Blog < https://pengin-omusubi.com/wanizame/ >
Kokugakuin – Kojiki – < http://kojiki.kokugakuin.ac.jp/classics/ >
Sankei News < Click link to article >
Izumo no Kuni Fudoki < https://izumonokunifudoki.blogspot.com/2016/07/blog-post.html >
CHALLENGES IN INTERPRETING OLD TEXT
Before going forward, it’s worth mentioning again that the story of the white rabbit and his journey to Inaba Country is originally part of a bigger tale regarding Ōkuninushi no kami, and how he becomes the head of the earthly gods, as well as the ruler of the central land in Japan, which is all recited in the Kojiki. While it may seem that the white rabbit plays a minor role, it is in fact the opposite, for he was critical in Ōkuninushi’s rise in status, and can even be argued that he judged Ōkuninushi’s fate. While this, as well as all other stories found in the Kojiki, part of the mythological origin of Japan, it is worth noting that the interpretations aren’t as clear cut as one would assume; reading the clear & easily digestible versions of the folklore (including the one from the previous article) paints an acceptable image of the white rabbit and his journey to Inaba Country, but in reality these are based on adjusted, acceptable interpretations. The original text isn’t as clear with the details, nor the meaning behind some of the dialogue used. These, along with not fully understanding the reasoning behind why the Kojiki was written the way it is, has lead to numerous discussions on the meaning behind much of the text. In the end, researchers have to struggle reading in-between the lines, which in itself can lead to more confusion. Some of these issues will be touched upon lightly in this article.
Another point regarding interpretation challenges leads to the idea about aspects of the folklore being a parallel to real social, and political events that are linked to geographical areas of old. While there may be some truth to this (especially later on in the Kojiki, when the “gods” theme tones down abit and focuses more on actual people), it is still challenged by a lack of concrete, factual evidence. Reasons behind this include certain aspects of the past intentionally hidden due to political issues, which can be remedied through either changing names of certain individuals involved, to replacing with a misdirection in the form of a fantasy-like narrative.
LESSONS FROM THE FOLKLORE
As a folklore geared towards children, what types of lessons are young readers expected to take away from the story “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”? There are 2 lessons that I was able to find.
1) GREAT FORTUNE COMES TO THOSE WHO DO GOOD DEEDS – This one points to Ōkuninushi no kami, and how he was rewarded for his kind nature. Unlike his mean and selfish older siblings, he helped an injured white rabbit heal itself & regain his fur. In turn to his kindness, the white rabbit ensured that it was Ōkuninushi be the one to take Yagami-hime’s hand in marriage.
2) AVOID BRASH ACTIONS, LEST BE GREETED BY DISASTER – This pertains to the white rabbit and how he foiled himself as he crossed along the backs of the sharks to reach Inaba Country. While his wit to have the sharks line up unaware is admirable, getting ahead of himself and making them look stupid by bragging about his trick was his undoing. The white rabbit brought bad luck to himself due to this…which is a poor habit we should avoid.
THE REAL OKI ISLAND AND INABA COUNTRY
The country Inaba, from where the events took place, has been deduced by researchers to be modern-day Shimane, in the eastern part of Tottori Prefecture. Shimane is also part of the area that was once called “Inaba Country” or “Inaba Province”, during ancient times. The land of Inaba is painted as an important location where a goddess named “Yagami-hime” resides. This may not be a coincidence, as there is a bit of a parallel with real life. You see, while most of the events in the Kojiki are considered mythological, this possibly was done intentionally as it covers possibly social structures. In the past, Inaba Country was one of the highest ranking lands in terms of powerful clans, coming second to the capital where the Imperial Palace was located. Inaba Country was also close to the capital at a time, so the clans there served the Imperial family directly. In terms of its geography, Inaba Country sits next to the Sea of Japan, which is important to note for the next part.
Looking at Oki Island, where the white rabbit was first introduced, there are a few areas that are thought to be this location. Based on distance, as well as the idea that this is a “lone” island, researchers point to an archipelago in the Sea of Japan called Oki Islands, meaning that it wasn’t a single island. Despite it’s distance in the ocean, it is part of the territory of Shimane Prefecture that is called “Oki District” in modern times. While being one of the many smaller islands off the coast of Japan, Oki Islands was considered its own country, as there are records of inhabitants even during ancient times. This also made these islands suitable for political exile. Speaking of which, The full story of Ōkuninishi has a relatively profound political tone, especially later in his life. Some of it is thought to be parallel to real events between aristocrats, warlords, and the Imperial Palace. Is it possible that the white rabbit, being the only one of his kind on Oki Island, was a representation of a reputable individual who was exiled? Or one who escaped from a bad situation? That is a personal theory of mine, one out of speculation.
WHAT’S IN A TITLE
At 1st glance, the modern title “White Rabbit of Inaba Country” seems to be more straight-forward and staying true to the story. Yet, something is off, as this points to the rabbit being from Inaba Country. Isn’t he originally from Oki island? To be honest, the modern title isn’t as straight forward as one would think when reading the Japanese title, yet it’s one of those minor points that’s not easily obvious. Now, if we compare this with how the older title was written, we then discover it is filled with hidden meanings behind the story. Of course, to understand this would be to analyze and dissect the characters used in the Japanese title.
Here’s variations of the modern title. Note that they are both essentially the same, other than that the word for “white rabbit” (shiro usagi) is either written in modern kanji (Chinese characters) or simpler Japanese phonetic characters called hiragana:
Now, here’s what the older title looks like.
Inaba (因幡) is the name of the country where the events took place. In the older title, we see “稲羽” used for the name Inaba instead. Other than small nuances such as character presentation, representation of phonetics, and the like based on the time period, both mean the same thing. However, the real point of interest lies in the theory that the name is thought to have a hidden reading, which is “往ば” or “去ば”. Both are verbs with the conjugation “inaba” pronunciation, and have the meaning “to return” or “go back”. If either is used in the story’s title, it’ll properly read “White Rabbit who’s Returning Home”. This theory isn’t too far-fetched, as in many older Japanese literature there tends to be word play through the use of Chinese characters. Also, the white rabbit’s desire to travel to Inaba Country must mean that he knows something about this area….possibly because he’s been there before?
There is one other point, which is concerning the older title “shiro usagi” and how it does not use a character that actually means white. Instead, there was a theory that it actually references him returning back to normal after facing his ordeals. This will be saved for a more in-depth discussion later in the article.
YAGAMI-HIME = GODDESS
Yagami-hime is whom Ōkuninushi no kami and his 80 sibling gods head to see. Is this also true for the white rabbit? There’s some interesting tidbits regarding her, as well as what she represents.
Yagami is the name of an area in Inaba in the past. Thought to have gotten its name from the actual story, the area of Yagami was fairly large, consisting of 12 towns. Today, it is known as “Yazu District” (八頭郡) in Tottori Prefecture. Having such a historical record as such, it’s possible that Yagami was a place of significance, for it’s even thought that the white rabbit, as well as Ōkuninushi no kami and his siblings, were heading to this very area. In parallel to the regalia of Yagami-hime in the story, the area of Yagami may have been controlled by a noble family. Whether or not this family had a daughter of such significance as demonstrated through Yagami-hime in the story is a mystery. Another thing worth mentioning is that her name can can also be pronounced as “Yakami-hime”.
In terms of her position, since the premise of the folklore centers around gods, Yagami-hime is indeed a goddess. So, it would make sense that other gods would seek her out to take her hand in marriage. What about the white rabbit? What would be his purpose in meeting with her? In the version of the story used in the previous article, it’s written that the white rabbit traveled to Inaba to meet a goddess. Is Yagami-hime whom the white rabbit wanted to meet? This isn’t specified. In fact, this appears to be an addition to this version. Going off of the original story found in the Kojiki, readers only learn of his intentions after Ōkuninushi asks what’s ailing him, which the reply includes his statement about wanting to visit Inaba. In truth, the white rabbit doesn’t mention about a goddess, let alone Yagami-hime. In the end, most likely he only went to see Yagami-hime as a means to help Ōkuninushi no Kami, and foil the 80 sibling gods’ plans.
One more fact to mention is how Yagami-hime and Ōkuninushi no kami’s relationship is considered one Japan’s oldest love story. While this isn’t the only example of a relationship taking place in the Kojiki (nor is it the first one), it is, in a way, appreciated on a romantic level. In true fashion, their relationship did blossom into something special, where they did get married and have a child. Unfortunately, their tale did not have a happy ending, as Ōkuninushi would be forced to leave after an attempt was made to take his life, and would never return back to Yagami-hime.
SHARK VS CROCODILE
In terms of topics pertaining to the story that have no clear resolution, one I’d like to point out in detail concerns the first obstacle for the white rabbit, which are the sharks. Surprisingly, it wasn’t always sharks that were presented in the story, for there was a time when instead the sea creatures that cost the white rabbit’s fur were described as crocodiles. The reasoning behind this has to do with the naming convention used during ancient times, and the confusion that comes with it due to inconsistencies in geographical inhabitancy, as well as changes in the Japanese language in modern times.
First, let’s look at the name used in the story. The creatures deceived by the white rabbit are called “wani” in Japanese, which are represented by the Chinese characters “和爾”. Verbally, wani means “crocodile” or “alligator”. So one would assume that crocodiles were the correct sea creatures that were the obstacle in the story. There are a couple of issues with this, the biggest deals with when the story (and as a whole, the Kojiki) was written. It dates back around the 700s, which around this time, crocodiles were not a creature naturally inhabiting Japan. Furthermore, the event with the white rabbit took place out in the sea, where crocodiles would not be at for they are reptiles and not sea creatures. Although they are active in water, crocodiles are generally found closer to land. Sharks, on the other hand, are a type of sea creature that are fish and can be found out in the ocean, which better fits the narrative.
So why use the term wani for a sea creature? There are some theories behind this. One is that the Japanese had knowledge of crocodiles from their interactions with other Asian countries, such as China and, for the sake of fantasy, added them into the story. This isn’t too far-fetch, especially when you consider how many artworks incorporate tigers, which are also not natural to Japan. In fact, this is a pretty strong one, as there are other cases of the word wani appearing in other Japanese folklore, which was used for dragon-like or snake-like reptilian creatures. On the other hand, one thought is that the word wani was used as a label for multiple creatures in ancient times, and not just for reptilian ones such as crocodiles; there is evidence that the name may have been attached to other sea creatures as far back as when the Kojiki was written, which includes fugu (河豚, puffer fish) and same (鮫, shark) . This isn’t too unusual; in fact, this practice is still used today in certain parts of Japan, as apparently the word wani is associated to sharks. This is similar to the difference in pig/boar labeling in Japan when compared to China.
At the end of the day, there is no concrete answer to whether it’s a crocodile or a shark that appears in the story. In current times, the shark theory is more accepted, and is in the majority of versions and art depictions of the story. In fact, to distinguish from crocodiles, the common practice is to use the unique title of “wani-zame” (鰐鮫) for these sharks.
The cattail, called “gama no hana” (蒲の花) in Japanese, plays a symbolic role for bringing back the white rabbit’s fur. Or, it can be though that it replaces the lost fur completely. For those who are unfamiliar (like myself), a cattail reed has spiky seeds all over it. When ready, these same seed bloom into fluffy cotton. In reality, the cattail is a multi-purpose plant that has been relied on for generations, as it can be used for making utilitarian supplies such as hats & baskets, it can be used for culinary purposes, as well as for medicinal purposes. Quite amazing is how the cotton from the seeds can be used as stuffing and insulation, which is probably where the idea of rubbing a cattail along the white rabbit’s body had the seeds stick to him in order to bloom into a new white coat of fur came from.
Outside of this playfully creative remedy in a folklore, cattail does have actual medicinal usages in Japan in the past, as it is said there are some archaic remedies found in old documentations. One usage was for resolving certain pain-related issues, possibly through boiling or burning down certain parts into some form of concoction. Another medical usage was for bleeding issues, where the cotton from the seeds were probably used to cover up cuts. Speaking of which, there is the idea that the cattail was actually used for the purpose of relieving the white rabbit’s pain and not for regaining his white fur. Could it be that the cotton from the cattail was actually used to cover up and heal his lacerated skin? While this aligns with actual medical purposes, this idea is not incorporated in most (if any) interpretations of the folklore.
We’ll stop here, as this quip about cattails is a small piece of a much bigger conversation that will be covered more in depth in the following paragraphs below.
ORIGINS OF THE WHITE RABBIT
Pinpointing where the white rabbit comes from is one with no clear answer. Exploring the origin would be a fruitless endeavor, as there are no concrete methods to uncover this. On the other hand, we can look into some fun facts regarding the character used to identify him, as well as the idea of him crossing the sea.
For linguistic buffs, it’s interesting to know that the white rabbit was identified by a different Chinese character. Normally, “兎” is the character that represents rabbits, but in the Kojiki there is a unique variation for this word, which is “菟”. The difference between both characters is the top part of the character, which means “grass”. This is an old character not used in modern Japanese, but is though to be the original character used to identify rabbits. One can say that the old character describes rabbits better, as they do live out in fields and eat vegetation to survive.
The idea of a rabbit crossing the ocean on the backs of sharks is quite unique, but not necessarily the sole example of such story telling. There are other such tales in older Asian lore where animals, such as foxes and small deer, have to cross the sea using various modes of transportation. It’s possible that the author of Kojiki was inspired by other Asian lore from other countries, and incorporated this theme. But why? On another note, what does this tell us about the white rabbit? Was he native to Oki Island, or did he somehow get stranded over there? Does that mean that he’s originally from Inaba? Also, what was the reason to traveling to Oki Island? Could his travel have been a reflection of political conflict? Is the white rabbit a parallel of an important individual sent to Oki Island? Questions like these probably won’t be answered anytime soon. Interestingly, there was a work of literary art produced generations later that expands on the origins of the white rabbit with a unique spin, adding reasoning behind his journey. Since it is out of scope with this article, it won’t be discussed here, but I intend to go in depth about it in another article.
BEHIND THE “WHITE” FUR
In the modern adaption of the story, the protagonist is called “shiro usagi”, which is white rabbit in English, and this name is represented by the characters “白兎”. However, note that this differs from the original text, which includes the point that the color of his fur was never mentioned before he lost his fur. In the Kojiki, he is not called “white rabbit”. Instead, simply the term “rabbit” is used to address him, along with other terms based on the changes of his situation, such as naked rabbit (裸の兎) from when he lost his fur, and rabbit god (兎神) after he elevates to the status of a deity. The name of the book “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” is taken directly from the following line in the Kojiki upon regaining his fur after following Ōkuninushi’s remedy:
TRANS: He’s become the “white” rabbit of Inaba
Here we have rabbits that have brownish-to-beige-hue fur (left) during the warm seasons, while a white fur rabbit (right) sits in the snow during winter. Could there be any significance to the white rabbit having white fur in the folklore outside of wintertime? From Photo AC.
Although here the word “shiro” is used, which normally stands for white in Japanese through the character “白”, in the Kojiki a different character is used. This particular character for shiro is “素”, which has a meaning that leans toward “clean”, “unstained”, or “original”. An Edo period scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730 ~ 1801) reasoned that the reading of this character can be white through the same meaning. His reasoning has often been compared to how non-dyed clothing or fabric is often white, and is represented by the characters “素布”. Interestingly, the pronunciation shiro is uncommon for the character “素”, but could be a case where it’s used to represent the idea of “white”, thus allowing readers to understand that the rabbit does indeed have white fur.
On another train of thought, some of the descriptions geared towards the white rabbit is more “human-like”, as opposed to how other animals in the Kojiki are described. For example, when the white rabbit loses its fur, it is called the “naked rabbit”. The characters used for naked feels more of what you’d say to a person, as it has the nuance of meaning “being clothe-less and having a reddish hue”, similar to that of a new born baby. Some thoughts about the white fur likens it to clothing, such as him putting on a white robe. This could be because the white rabbit turned into a deity that is revered today, thus encouraging the words that describe him to be more respectful.
REAL PURPOSE OF ŌKUNINUSHI’S REMEDY
The most problematic conversation regarding the meaning behind “white” is regarding Ōkuninushi’s remedy, and what it truly was intended for in the original text. If we examine the white rabbit’s condition in the story, he was more than just fur-less, but was wind-burnt and lacerated from the 80 sibling gods’ prank. Seeing the injured body, Ōkuninushi’s remedy of using clean water and the cotton from cattail seeds may have only been to treat the cuts sustained and heal the body, for his intentions were to return the rabbit back to his “normal” state. Following this concept, the use of the word shiro (素) may have actually been speaking towards this, and not actually getting a white (白) fur back, if he even had one from the start.
While the application of medical treatment in the form of a remedy makes perfect sense, it does detract from a story that deals with individuals that are beyond normal. In fact, it takes away from the surreal nature that the narrative hints towards, not just in the “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” story, but from the Kojiki as a whole. It’s possible that the consensus found this “normal” medical idea distasteful; there are plenty of criticisms in the unclear and segmented narrative used in the Kojiki and its whole “gods” theme, which spurred many concepts such as this one in hopes to being the “missing” piece to solve the puzzle. In truth, reading the older, non-restructured version of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” (as well as Kojiki as a whole) can be a chore trying to interpret, as the descriptions are not very fleshed out, which can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. Thus, with this idea ruled out, future interpretations steered toward the notion that the character “素” refers to “white”, and incorporated the vivid imagery of a rabbit with white fur losing it, then regaining it through Ōkuninushi’s remedy.
WORSHIPING THE RABBIT DEITY
There’s no argument that “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” has had an influence on Japanese society. With the likeable image of the white rabbit, it is not surprising to see rabbits play a star role in future stories, traditions, and pop culture. One of the more substantial result of this can be seen in the number of shrines and temples built in honor of rabbits, or that have a rabbit motif somewhere in their structure.
The most well-known shrine that is directly correlated with the iconic folklore is “Hakuto Jinja” (白兎神社), or “White Rabbit Shrine” in English. This is located in Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture, the origin land of the folklore itself. This shrine was built generations later, Here, people revere the same white rabbit as “Hakuto-kami” (白兎神), and pray to receive aid for various situations, such as the following:
Images of Hakuto Jinja, which includes the main shrine hall (left), the torii gate (middle), and statues depicting the white rabbit and Ōkuninushi no kami (right). From Photo AC.
- Curing skin disease
- Healing from injuries
- Recover from various illnesses
- Animal Healthcare
All these are related to the folklore one way or the other, especially the last one. In “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”, the deity white rabbit displayed the unique ability to affect the fate of specific individuals, or people of special existence. As such, we see how remarkable he was as the go-between in sealing the fate between Yagami-hime and Ōkuninushi. Thus, why lovers would come to the Hakuto Jinja and pray for a successful marriage.
Here comes the end to this article. This became a much longer one than anticipated due to finding a lot of interesting information. This is also a testament on the importance of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” in Japanese culture as a whole. There are other interesting concepts based on this folklore, which are currently planned as separate articles to be shared on this blog later this year.