Tales From Japan: The Rabbit on the Moon

by Julia LiMarzi

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).

Rabbits on the Moon

What Is Otsukimi?

On the night of the Harvest Moon (the 15th day of the 8th lunar month), people gather to enjoy the beauty of the full moon for Otsukimi (お月見, literally “looking at the moon”). This moon festival, some-times called the Mid-Autumn Festival, is celebrated throughout Asia under different names. The tradition of celebrating the Harvest Moon came to Japan from China in the Heian Period (794-1185), a time known for the aristocrats' dedication to aesthetics and poetry. People would gather outdoors under the full moon and recite poetry, play music, and enjoy seasonal dishes. Over the centuries, it became a popular holiday for all classes to pray for a good harvest, offering fall produce like Sweet Potatoes and Taro to the Moon. Nowadays, Otsukimi is also called Jugoya, meaning "fifteenth night".

Many foods are a part of the celebrations, but most iconic are the tsukimi dango. Made simply by steaming a dough of rice flour and water, these little mochi-like balls are white and round like a full moon. Traditionally, tsukimi dango are presented as a pyramid with 15 dumplings total for the "fifteenth night". Other foods usually found at an Otuskimi gathering include chestnuts, sweet potatoes, taro, and other seasonal produce. You'll also find special dishes like tsukimi soba and tsukimi udon that feature a fried egg.

Stay tuned later this month for our own Tsukimi Dango recipe ;)

Will you be celebrating Otsukimi this year? Let us know!

See what tsukimi is like in modern Japan!

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