Yuki Usagi: The Japanese Snow Hare

A girl wearing a Japanese traditional kimono kneels on a mat by a tray that holds a hare made out of snow. A woman holding a tray of food is next to her. A boy rolling a snowball can be seen behind her, as well as a person walking in the snow holding an umbrella.

Detail of “Ukie yukimi shuen no zu,” by Utagawa Toyoharu, made between 1772 and 1774. The large scene depicts a snow viewing party. In this detail from the left side of the print, a young woman has a snow sculpture of a hare on a tray and a boy is making a large snowball as a woman carries a tray to other guests at the party. See the full scene here. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.00764

In 2014 I wrote a blog for Folklife Today called, “From Snowballs to Sculptures: Material Culture that Melts.” It dealt with several kinds of traditional uses of snow as a construction material and as a projectile for snowball fights. I came across one type of snow sculpture that I didn’t know very much about, so it wasn’t included in the article. But I was curious, so I tried to learn more about it. Yuki usagi is a hare made out of snow. Japanese Americans make them just as they are still made Japan. It is often a simple egg shape with nandina leaves for ears and red nandina berries for eyes. But it can also have a more sculpted head, ears made of snow, and eyes that are painted on or made out of small seeds or pebbles. The hare made of snow in the 18th century print by Toyoharu above appears to have a sculpted head and ears. As shown in the print, these are small sculptures most often made by women and children. They can be placed on a tray to be brought up close to the house or even brought inside as a decoration for an event such as a formal tea or snow viewing. In addition to snow sculptures, white rabbits are also made out of sweet rice or mochi, sweet rice paste, to serve as treats.

“Usagi” is usually translated as “rabbit,” but one clue about the meaning of the winter sculptures is that the word is better translated as “hare.” The main islands of Japan have no native species of rabbits. The brown Japanese hare of Honshu and the Hokkaido snow hare are smaller than European hares and so were called rabbits by Westerners. There is an interesting endangered black short-eared rabbit, the Amami rabbit found on remote southern islands, but this is not the animal depicted in snow sculptures. There are also European rabbits that were introduced on one small island in the late 20th century, and this has become a tourist destination. But to understand the white snow sculpture, it is important to look at the folklore of hares in Japan. Compared to rabbits, hares have longer legs. The males spar with each other for territory and they can use their strong legs to defend themselves against other animals. In the folklore of many cultures, including Japan, hares are tricksters.

A white hare runs across the disk of the moon while a monkey wearing a kimono dances with a staff in front of the moon.

Tamausagi Songoku” (Songoku and Jeweled Hare), woodblock print by Taiso Yoshitoshi between 1885 and 1890. This shows the hare on the moon with Son Goku, the Japanese name for the Monkey King, a character found in the Buddhist lore of many parts of Asia. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //lccn.loc.gov/2008660102

In Asia, a white hare is said to inhabit the moon. An early version of the story of how the hare came to live on the moon can be found in the Jataka Tales from India concerning the incarnations of the Buddha before being born as Gautama Buddha (tale 316). These date from about the 4th century BCE. In one incarnation, the spirit that became the Buddha is born as a hare. The hare, a monkey, an otter, and a jackal (or fox, in the Japanese versions of this tale), vow to do acts of charity on the day of the full moon. They had already gathered food, each to their liking. When they met a poor man begging for food the monkey, otter, and jackal give him the food they had gotten for themselves. But since the hare only has grass, he has nothing appropriate to give. So he throws his body on the man’s fire so that the man can eat him. The man reveals that he is the deity Sakra and prevents the hare from being burned by the fire. Then he takes him to live on the moon for eternity so that his selflessness can be witnessed by the world. (A longer version of this tale is available in the Internet Sacred Texts Archive.) In Japan this is the Jeweled Hare or the Jade Hare and has the symbolic meanings of charity and longevity.

In Chinese culture the hare in the moon is said to pound medicine in a mortar and pestle, but in Korea and Japan, he pounds sweet rice to make mochi treats. This gives the hare an association with the New Year, when eating mochi has a special place in the festivities. In the Asian calendar this was in early February, and marked the end of winter. But when Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the New Year moved into mid-winter. So the hare has an association with the passing of winter and the hope of spring from its earlier association with the Asian New Year.

The hare in the moon is usually depicted as white. The only white hares on Honshu would be albino Japanese hares. Notice that the image of the hare on the moon in the print by Yoshitosh shows a white hare with red eyes. The red nandina berries that are often used for the eyes of the snow sculpture hint that this is one interpretation of what the living counterpart to the white hare on the moon might be. But snow hare sculptures are not always given red eyes. The hare found on Hokkaido is a species closely related to the mountain hare found in Europe, but smaller. It is described by some biologists as a subspecies of the mountain hare, while others think it should be classified as a separate species. Its Japanese name, Ezo yuki usagi literally means “Hokkaido snow hare.” In the summer it is brown with black eyes, but in the winter it changes its coat dramatically to become a white hare with small black tips on its ears. This hare could also be a model for the snow sculptures of hares. I suspect that we don’t need to choose between the hare of Honshu and the winter phase of the Hokkaido hare. Animal characters in folklore often draw on multiple sources, and both of these interpretations of “white hare” might contribute to the meaning of the hare found in sculptures and stories.

A tanuki wearing a kimono leans on a table with a tea kettle on a fire beside him.

Bunbuku chagama,” by Taiso Yoshitoshi a woodblock print made in the 1880s. This is an illustration of a folk tale about the shapeshifting tanuki, shown wearing a kimono. In this story he turns himself into a teakettle. Perhaps he is thinking about this as he looks at the teakettle beside him. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.01538

The hare is hunted and eaten in some parts of Japan. But in many areas it is tolerated and even appreciated, in spite of the fact that it can be a pest for farmers when it gets into their crops. In folklore about the hare it is clear that it is a hero and a defender of the farmer.

To understand the hare as an ally of farmers requires knowledge of another animal unique to Japan and often misunderstood. Trying to track down these stories I learned that the animal pursued by the hare in stories was historically known by different names in different regions of Japan. These names are sometimes translated into English as badger, wolf, or raccoon but it is none of these. Today it is known as the tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) canid about the size of a fox. It is currently considered a subspecies of the the Asian mainland raccoon dog, but recent research suggests it is a separate species. It has a coat that resembles that of a North American raccoon and also has dark patches on its eyes. But if you want to compare it to an American animal, it has much more in common with the gray fox than the raccoon. It is omnivorous, climbs trees to eat fruit or hunt birds, and adapts well to life near towns and cities. The tanuki’s surprising behavior has made it a trickster in folk tales where it has a few magical tricks including shapeshifting. The character of the tanuki in folklore and popular culture has changed over time. The earliest stories often depict the tanuki as dangerous and wicked. More recent tales, as well as depictions of the tanuki in popular culture cast him as a  clownish character who is sometimes well-meaning and sometimes up to mischief.

An old tale, “Kachi-kachi Yama,” tells of a wicked tanuki who is captured and trussed up by a farmer who plans to kill him and eat him later. The tanuki begs the farmer’s wife to let him go. In return he promises to help with the cooking. She takes pity on him and cut his bonds. The tanuki then kills her, magically takes her shape, and cooks her up into a soup. In the guise of the wife, he serves the soup to the farmer. While the farmer eats, the tanuki runs off, jeering at the farmer for eating his wife. The hare comes along to find the farmer mourning his wife and cursing the tanuki who tricked him into eating her. The hare promises the farmer that he will find the tanuki and make him pay for what he did. There are several adventures that follow about the ways that the hare tricks the tanuki, causing him pain while pretending to be his friend. These vary in different tellings. The tanuki never seems to catch on that the hare is behind his misfortunes. In one such adventure, the hare asks the tanuki to help carry kindling. The two collect sticks and make them into bundles, and tie them to their backs to carry home. The hare walks behind and sets fire to the sticks on the tanuki’s back. The tanuki asks about the crackling sound, but the hare says it is just the sound of  “Kachi-kachi Yama” (Burning Mountain) nearby. Shortly the tanuki realizes he is on fire and runs around yelling, but he is badly burned before getting the fire off his back. The last adventure always ends the story the same way. The hare makes a boat of wood and another of clay. He invites the tanuki to go fishing and then takes the wooden boat. The tanuki’s boat rapidly disintegrates and in desperation he begs the hare to rescue him. Instead the hare presses him down in the water with an oar and the tanuki drowns. So the hare kept his promise to the farmer.

I have found illustrations of this tale from the 19th and 20th centuries. In most the hare is white with black eyes like the winter phase of the Hokkaido snow hare, although occasionally its fur is brown. A woodblock print by Yamada Hogyoku made in 1835 shows the hare setting fire to the kindling on the tanuki’s back and has been made available online by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In this example the hare has white fur and red eyes, like illustration of the hare on the moon above. So artistic representations seem to tie the hare characters in these stories together, even though one story is sacred while the other is secular and one is a tale found all across Asia while the other is Japanese.

Women in traditional Japanese dress in the snow one sits in a tea shop, another holds a tray with a snow sculpture of a hare, as another woman walks by.

Hikitejaya mae no yuki usagi,” by Katsushika Hokusai a woodblock print made in 1798 or 1799. A woman standing in front of a tea shop holds a tray with a small sculpture of a hare. In this case the hare has a black eye instead of red.  //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.00590

The stories of the hare on the moon and of the hare that takes revenge on the tanuki are still told to children today. Both stories have a long history in Japanese folklore and art. In contemporary popular manga (comic books) and anime (animation) the hare has become a warrior who does battle against evil. It is a logical new chapter for this trickster hare that once took on a wicked tanuki.

So sculptures of hares made of snow have a long history and ties to the folklore about hares in Japan. If any readers know more about Japanese folklore about the hare, or hare snow sculptures, I hope they will contribute comments to this post.

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