Tag Archives: hares

The White Hare of Inaba & Crocodiles vs. Sharks

1 Nov

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.

Crocodile, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue.

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)

A late 19th century account of a crocodile being captured in Amami. Apparently it was then eaten.

A more detailed depiction of the crocodile in Amami. Experts believe this to be a vagrant estuarine crocodile. Some claim that there may have even been a tiny population on Iriomote Island, Okinawa. Both illustrations taken from “Nanto Zatsuwa”.

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).

Shark, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. Definitely not Jaws…

In this battle between the crocodile and the shark, it looks like the shark is the winner.

Splitting hairs? An adventure in Cross-Linguistic Naming

6 Nov

One of the interesting aspects of doing any anything nature-related in Japan is the difference in nomenclature between the English and Japanese languages.

Most non-linguists tend to think in very absolute terms – generally along the lines that their language’s interpretation of the world is the only one.  They are usually also guilty of believing that every word has an exact counterpart in other languages.


Let’s take a simple example, like “caterpillar”.

Simple, right?


Are you talking about a smooth-skinned caterpillar (further divided into “green” and “not green”!), a not-green looper or inchworm, or a hairy larval form of a moth or butterfly?  The Japanese language makes distinctions between all of these.

The smooth-skinned caterpillars come under the term “imomushi” (芋虫).  This group has two more sub-divisions: loopers or inchworms, called “shakutorimushi” (尺取り虫) – “measuring insect”, and the green-coloured varieties or “aomushi” (青虫) – “green insect”.

It’s green! The caterpillar of the swallowtail on a mandarin tree.

It bears mentioning here that the Japanese word “mushi”, while often translated as “insect”, is closer in meaning to the American generic “bug”, or the “creepy-crawly” of my childhood.  Thus, insects, spiders, centipedes, snails and worms can all come under the vernacular “mushi”

And if that’s not confusing enough, “ao” is usually translated as “blue”, but in reality covers a whole range of colours from blue to the light greens.  Green vegetables are “blue vegetables”, the green traffic light is also “blue”.  Translation work sometimes leaves me feeling blue (or is that green?)


The other group of caterpillars is the one whose members possess hair or spines as defensive mechanisms.  These are collectively known as “kemushi” (毛虫) – “hair insects”.  Most of these are the larval forms of moths, but some butterfly larvae are also in this group.


To complicate the issue further, there are also common names given to specific caterpillars.  An example of this is the moth Monema flavescens, known locally as iraga (刺蛾), although at least a dozen regional names also exist.  The larval form is called iramushi (刺虫), and loves persimmon leaves.  I can tell you from personal experience, you DON’T want to touch one of these!!  Just brushing against it produced more pain than a bee sting, and a rash which lasted all day.


Twenty milimetres of pain – the larval form of the iraga moth. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve just mentioned regional names, and these can cause confusion too.  Freshwater fish often have several different regional names, making it difficult to be sure which fish is being discussed.  Furthermore, the regional name for one fish may be the same as another regional name for a different fish.

Another example of identity crisis of is the raccoon dog, or tanuki (), with the badger, or anaguma (穴熊).  Both these animals are superficially similar, but are not closely related at all.  In some parts of the country, a dish known as tanukijiru (“tanuki soup”) is known, but it more likely contains the meat of the badger – assuming it contains meat at all.  Another dish bearing the same name is a vegetarian dish, the meat being substituted with konyaku.

Confusion arises because both these animals have been known as mujina () in different areas.  The soup in question was often known as mujinajiru.  Ascertaining which animal “mujina” refers to is difficult at best.


Spot the differences. Tanuki (top) and Japanese badger (bottom). Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

The tanuki is a fascinating animal and deserves its own blog entry.


Now to the flipside – distinctions made in the English language but not in Japanese.


I recently learned that there are no rabbits on mainland Japan.  Japan’s only true rabbit is the Amami rabbit, Amamikurousagi (奄美黒兎) of Amamioshima and Tokunoshima islands.  The “rabbit” of Japanese folk tales is actually a hare – Nihon nousagi (日本野兎) or just nousagi (野兎).  The generic word usagi in Japanese can be either a rabbit or a hare – the language doesn’t make the distinction.  (It doesn’t split hares?)


A translation of “Kachi-Kachi Yama”. The hare has been translated as “rabbit”, and the tanuki described as “a kind of badger” – it’s actually a member of the dog family. Scanned from “Once Upon a Time in Japan”, Kodansha, 1985

Another generic word is hachi ().  Most Japanese (and their Japanese-English dictionaries) translate this word as “bee”.  In fact, the insect in question is more likely to be a wasp or hornet.  There are specific names for different bees and wasps, but the bee/wasp distinction is not made.


Bees and wasps. Clocwise from top left: Japanese hornet, Japanese honey bee, large carpenter bee, paper wasp. All “hachi” in Japanese.  Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

And finally, turtles and tortoises.

Growing up in Australia in the 1980’s, we (or rather, herpetologists) had three turtle/tortoise distinctions – turtles (specifically flippered sea animals), tortoises (club-footed or clawed animals that spend most of their time on land) and freshwater tortoises (animals with webbed feet and living in lakes and rivers) – also known as terrapins in the UK.  In the ‘90s, this changed to just turtles (aquatic or marine animals) and tortoises (terrestrial animals).

In Japanese, these animals are known collectively as kame ().  But then, the Japanese language has a separate word for soft-shelled turtles – suppon ().


This is just a small selection of some of the challenges of cross-linguistic wildlife watching.  There is no “right” or “superior” language for dealing with nature – one needs only an open and inquisitive mind.

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