Have You Heard the Story of the Rabbit on the Moon?
Tsuki no Usagi is one of Japan's most popular folktales, and its imagery is found throughout Japan, especially at this time of year. You might be familiar with Japan’s most famous reference to this folktale, the name of our favorite Sailor Senshi: Sailor Moon aka Usagi Tsukino!
How a Rabbit Reached the Moon:
One night, the Man on the Moon came down to earth disguised as a beggar. He chanced upon a Fox, a Monkey, and a Rabbit (usagi) and asked for some food. The Fox brought him fish from a stream, and the Monkey brought fruit from the trees, but the Rabbit could only offer grass. So he told the beggar to build a fire, and when it was built, threw himself onto the flames to offer himself to the Man. Amazed by the Rabbit's generosity, the beggar transformed back into the Man on the Moon and pulled the Rabbit from the fire. To honor the Rabbit's kindness, the Man on the Moon carried the Rabbit back to the moon to live with him. Now, if you look at the full moon, you can see the outline of the Rabbit pounding mochi on the moon.
This classic folktale is often told to children around the time of the harvest moon. Though the tale has been fully "japan-ified" with time, its roots have been traced to a Buddhist tale, Śaśajâtaka. In this version, the rabbits companions vary. The motley crew of animals decided to practice charity on the day of the full moon. A beggar passes by and each offers something for the man but the rabbit can only offer grass. As in the Japanese tale, he jumps into the flames of their fire. The beggar reveals himself to be Śakra, the ruler of heaven. Awed by the rabbit's sacrifice, he places the rabbit's image on the moon for all to see. The tale even goes on to explain why the moon is grey: it's seen through the smoke of the fire that fateful night.
China and Korea share similar tales of the rabbit on the moon, which makes sense since Buddhism and the Mid-Autumn Festival both spread throughout Asia at roughly the same time (only a couple hundred years separate the two).