The Japanese artist does not distinguish between the rabbit and the hare, both animals being depicted and referred to under the name of Usagi. The hare or rabbit is commonly associated with the moon in art and legend, and as in Occidental countries we speak of the “man in the moon,” so in Japan do people refer to the “hare in the moon.” The origin of this association dates back to ancient mythology. In another story, as recorded in the Mahabharata, Buddha appeared on earth as a hare in one of his transmigrations. An old, ragged, hungry traveler asked for food from the hare, the ape and the fox. The hare instructed the hungry man to gather fuel and build a fire. When the fire was burning, the hare threw himself upon it and thus sacrificed himself to assuage the other’s hunger. The beggar proved to be the god Indra in disguise. As a reward he recorded the image of the hare upon the moon as a shining example and a lasting memorial.
The Sanskrit word for hare is Sason, which means “the leaping one,” and this is associated also with the moon, for as the hare leaps and bounds, so also does the moon periodically change its face. The Sanskrit name for moon is Cacadbaras, which translates as “one who carries the hare.”
The hare is the emblem of Candra, the original Brahmanic deity, the goddess of the moon, and he is often represented with her in art. In Chinese mythology the moon hare is an attribute of the celestial Queen Mother of the West. Furthermore, he is pictured in the moon as pounding with mortar and pestle to prepare the elixir of life from herbs which must be gathered only in the light of the full moon. In Japan this legend has been altered slightly to conform with Japan’s own elixir of life, rice. This popular belief states that the hare in the moon is pounding rice for the rice cakes known as Mochi. The word Mochizuki means both “rice cake” and “full moon”. It is also said to polish the moon with a brush of marestail. This image is one of the twelve ornaments on Chinese imperial robes. Since the moon is believed to ripen rice crops, the hare is considered as a rice giving deity. The Kojiki records many legends associated with gods, the divine descent of the imperial line and the Shinto´ religion. It tells the tale of the white hare of Inaba. The Master of the Great Land sent his eighty deities to each petition for the hand in marriage of the princess Yakami. In the course of their journey they come across a naked hare lying in pain and advise him to bathe in salt water and lie in the wind to ease his discomfort. The hare heeded their advice, but soon his skin cracked and split as it dried. It is in this pitiful state that he was found by the deity Great Name Possessor. The wretched creature explained how he tricked a crocodile (wani) into letting him cross the sea by telling him to line up his tribe so that he could walk across them and count them. As he reached the last one he trumpeted the truth of his trickery and the last of the crocodiles snapped at him, robbing him of his fur. Taking pity on the hare, the Great Name Possessor instructed it to wash in the river water and roll its body in the sedge grass to restore its coat. In his gratitude the hare declared that the princess Yakami would reject the eighty petitioners who had gone before in favor of the Great Name Possessor. Superstitions regarding the hare relate that the female conceives by running across the surface of water under a full moon on the eighteenth night of the eighth month. If, however, the moon is obstructed from view by clouds or mist, then she will not conceive. In another version the hare conceives simply by gazing steadfastly at the full moon, while still a third tale relates that she becomes impregnated by licking the fur of the male of the species while the moon is full. This motif of the hare beneath a full moon is very common in Japanese art. The hare is generally believed to be supernaturally possessed of longevity. When five hundred years old its fur turns blue, and at one thousand turns white again. He is not, however, emblematic of longevity, nor is he credited with magical or supernatural powers. The combination of hare, water, and moon are symbolic of life and is often referred to in legends. The best known folk tales regarding the hare are “The White Hare of Inaba,” which is recorded in the Kojiki, and Kachi-kachi-yama, or “The Crackling Mountain.”
Talent, ambition and virtue are displayed by people born in the year of the hare. They have exceedingly fine taste, and are trusted by others. They are eloquent, financially lucky, conservative, clever, and honest.