So this Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land had eighty Deities his brethren; but they all left the land to the Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land. The reason for their leaving it was this: Each of these eighty Deities had in his heart the wish to marry the Princess of Yakami in Inaba, and they went together to Inaba, putting their bag on [the back of] the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, whom they took with them as an attendant. Hereupon, when they arrived at Cape Keta, [they found] a naked hare lying down. Then the eighty Deities spoke to the hare, saying: “What thou shouldest do is to bathe in the sea-water here, and lie on the slope of a high mountain exposed to the blowing of the wind.” So the hare followed the instructions of the eighty Deities, and lay down. Then, as the sea-water dried, the skin of its body all split with the blowing of the wind, so that it lay weeping with pain. But the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, who came last of all, saw the hare, and said: “Why liest thou weeping?” The hare replied, saying: “I was in the Island of Oki, and wished to cross over to this land, but had no means of crossing over. For this reason I deceived the crocodiles of the sea, saying: ‘Let you and me compete, and compute the numbers of our [respective] tribes. So do you go and fetch every member of your tribe, and make them all lie in a row across from this island to Cape Keta. Then I will tread on them, and count them as I run across. Hereby shall we know whether it or my tribe is the larger.’ Upon my speaking thus, they were deceived and lay down in a row, and I trod on them and counted them as I came across, and was just about to get on land, when I said: ‘You have been deceived by me.’ As soon as I had finished speaking, the crocodile who lay the last of all seized me and stripped off all my clothing. As I was weeping and lamenting for this reason, the eighty Deities who went by before [thee] commanded and exhorted me, saying: ‘Bathe in the salt water, and lie down exposed to the wind.’ So, on my doing as they had instructed me, my whole body was hurt.” Thereupon the Deity Great-Name-Possessor instructed the hare, saying: “Go quickly now to the river-mouth, wash thy body with the fresh water, then take the pollen of the sedges [growing] at the river-mouth, spread it about, and roll about upon it, whereupon thy body will certainly be restored to its original state.” So [the hare] did as it was instructed, and its body became as it had been originally. This was the White Hare of Inaba. It is now called the Hare Deity. So the hare said to the Deity Great-Name-Possessor: “These eighty Deities shall certainly not get the Princess of Yakami. Though thou bearest the bag, Thine Augustness shall obtain her.”
From the Kojiki, translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain
This myth is the basis for a children’s story The White Hare of Inaba.
The story is a goldfield for mythology and folklore enthusiasts; but since Wild in Japan is primarily a wildlife blog, let’s just stick to the two animals mentioned in the tale.
The hare in question would have to be a Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus), or Nihon nousagi (日本野兎), one of only two species of leporid – the other being the Amami rabbit – living in Japan. Japanese hares will grow white fur in winter in snowy climes, but it seems likely that the white in the story is probably symbolic – both the fox messengers of the god Inari and the snake messengers of the Suwa Shrine are also white.
Popular versions of the story hold that the hare was washed from the mainland to the Oki Islands during a storm. Curiously, there is a sub-species of the Japanese hare found only on the Oki Islands (Lepus brachyurus okiensis), and the islands were also used for exile. (Does the hare in the tale represent an exile from the mainland?)
More enigmatic is the crocodile mentioned in Chamberlain’s translation. The Kojiki uses the word “wani”, written as (和邇) for its phonetic value – the ideograms do not actually indicate what it is. However, the homophone wani (鰐) is also the Japanese generic name for crocodiles and alligators.
While fossil records show that crocodiles (Toyotamaphimeia and several others) lived in Japan in the distant past and, apparently, vagrant estuarine crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) have been reported as far north as the Sea of Japan, the crocodile seems an unlikely candidate. The other crocodilian species found in northeast Asia is the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), but since alligators don’t tolerate salt water well, it is extremely unlikely that any found their way into Japanese seas in numbers sufficient to be included in Japanese folklore. (Caveat: fossil evidence indicates this species was extant in Japan during the Pliocene)
But don’t discount the crocodile completely – Chamberlain himself believed the creature in question to be a kind of dragon, for which “crocodile” was the more accurate rendering. Other sources claim that the story may have its origins in the Indonesian islands and Malaysian peninsula, featuring a mouse deer or a monkey deceiving crocodiles.
(How James Bond would have done it)
Others have suggested whales or sea snakes. I would be so bold as to suggest the possibility of wani being the semi-legendary sage Wani (王仁) and his fellow Confucian scholars, or perhaps the family with the name Wani. I found one other site which also suggested the latter.
Many versions of The White Hare of Inaba, however, have the hare crossing over on a barrage of sharks. The Japanese words for shark are same (鮫) as a generic term; and fuka (鱶), which is used in the Kansai for large sharks. The old word wanizame (鰐鮫) is also used to describe vicious sharks. Furthermore, in the Izumo area the dialectal word for shark is “wani”. And if that isn’t enough, I discovered that three species of shark found in or around Japanese waters have “wani” in their name – the smalltooth sand tiger (Odontaspis ferox) or owanizame (大鰐鮫), the sand tiger shark or grey nurse (Carcharias taurus), known locally as shirowani (白鰐), and the crocodile shark (Pseudocarcharias kamoharai), which is known as mizuwani (水鰐).
In this battle between the crocodile and the shark, it looks like the shark is the winner.