Continuing our segment on Japanese mythology, we arrive at another popular story, the Rabbit of Inaba. Most people in Japan learn at least part this story when they are young, so as to instill in them not to tell lies. The whole tale does a bit more than just encourage people to be honest. In the Kojiki, it introduces one of Japan’s most important gods, Okuninushi.
If you haven’t read our series on Japanese myths, you can start at the beginning with the Creation of Japan.
The Rabbit of Inaba and Okuninushi
Susano-o lived out his days peacefully, and had many children with his wife Kushinada in Izumo, eventually passing to Ne no Kuni i.e. Yomi.
Eight generations later, one of Susano-o descendants the god Onamuchi [大穴牟遅], later known as Okuninushi[大国主], was born. He was the youngest in his extremely large family with roughly 80 or so older brothers. All of his brother were ill-tempered and had a taste for violence.
One day, Onamuchi and his brothers heard of the beautiful Princess Yagami [八上比売] in the kingdom of Inaba. Each of the brothers wanted the princess for themselves and decided they should travel to Inaba to court Princess Yagami. They were so confident in their ability to woo Princess Yagami that all of Onamuchi’s brothers gave him the lands they had in Izumo, as the marrying the princess would require the victor to live in the princess’ kingdom with her. While it might seem like a good thing that Onamuchi received all this land, it was actually because his brothers thought so little of him and did not see him as competition in the courtship of Princess Yagami. Sitting at the very bottom of the totem pole meant that Onamuchi was only allowed to come as his brothers’ attendant.
The Clever Rabbit of Inaba and the Wani
On the island of Oki there was a clever white rabbit. This rabbit wanted to go to the kingdom of Inaba across the sea. After some thought, he hatched a mischievous scheme. The rabbit called out to the shark-alligator-crocodile creatures known as wani [鰐] who lived in the sea, “Hey! Wani-san!!
“What do you want rabbit?” the wani replied
“I bet my clan is larger than your clan!” chided the rabbit.
“Impossible! My clan is far bigger than yours!” snapped the wani.
“Why don’t we find out then? If you get all the wani together I will count everyone and then we will know which clan is bigger.”
The wani did as the rabbit instructed and got together a long row of wani that lined up all the way to Inaba on the other side.
“Ok, everyone hold still, I’m going to count you now.” And the rabbit proceeded to hop on the backs of each of the wani, feeling especially satisfied with himself the further along he got. Just before he jumped on the last wani, he could no longer contain himself
“Haha! I’ve tricked you all, you stupid wani! I just needed to cross the sea!” he mocked. The last wani turned on the rabbit and snapped on the rabbit’s fur. Soon, all the wani joined in and rabbit was left sobbing and furless on the shore of Inaba.
“Serves you right!” They hissed and swam away.
Onamuchi and the Rabbit of Inaba
Onamuchi labored at the end of his brothers’ caravan to Princess Yagami’s palace. His brothers had unfairly assigned him to lug all the supplies, meaning he was just able to keep up. As his brothers came to the shore of Inaba, they saw a strange thing on the beach: a rabbit, naked bloodied, and in tears.
“How did you end up you in such a state rabbit?” One of the brothers asked, and between his sobs the rabbit told them the story of how he had tricked the wani to take him to Inaba. Some of the brothers snickered. “If you take a bath in the sea, then go and stand up on that cliff and let the wind blow on your skin, you will be healed, rabbit.” Said one of the brothers.
Because they all looked so wealthy and important, the rabbit decided to believe them, only to have the salt of the sea sting his wounds and the wind make his skin dry and crack. Onamuchi’s brothers left the poor rabbit to his misery, who was in even more pain than before.
When Onamuchi came across the rabbit, he also asked him what had befallen him and again the rabbit told the story of his trickery.
“I am sorry for your woes rabbit. Sadly, those men who came before me were my brothers, but I will tell you how to truly cure yourself since it seems you’ve learned your lesson about not deceiving others.”
Onamuchi was very knowledgeable of medicinal remedies and instructed the rabbit to go bathe in the mouth of the river and to gather the flowers of the cattails, and roll in the pollen. The rabbit did as Onamuchi instructed, and he soon saw his beautiful white fur grow back. Happily, the rabbit returned to Onamuchi and showed off his lovely new fur.
“Those nasty brothers of yours Onamuchi, they are after the hand of Princess Yagami aren’t they?” the rabbit asked
“Yes.” Replied Onamuchi.
“Well, let me tell you this Onamuchi, I have a way of knowing things and I promise you, the Princess will not marry any of your brothers. She will only marry you!” and with that the rabbit of Inaba hopped away.
Perplexed, Onamuchi picked up his large bags and continued on his way.
By the time he finally caught up to his family, they were already at the princess’s palace. One-by-one the princess had turned down each of her 80 suitors. When Onamuchi came before the princess, she asked him “Are you Onamuchi?” and when he replied, the princess declared she could see the kindness in him, and would accept no others. Onamuchi and the Princess Yagami were immediately betrothed that day. Somehow the rabbit of Inaba kept his word.
Treachery was afoot however, because getting a leg up on your older brothers can lead to some hard feelings. Sadly for Onamuchi, his older brothers were particularly sadistic and had very poor anger management skills.
After some discussion, the brothers concluded the only reasonable thing to do was to kill Onamuchi.
They got together and approached Onamuchi. His brothers told him they were planning to kill a rare red boar that lived deep in a nearby mountain. They further explained that the plan was to lure the boar to cliff and push him off. The only thing Onamuchi needed to do was to catch the beast when it got to the bottom of the mountain. Easy-peasy, right?
Faithfully, Onamuchi waited at the bottom of the mountain while his brothers “hunted” the boar. At the top of the mountain, the brother heated a large boulder until it became bright red. Once it was hot enough, they let it roll down the cliff-side, barreling towards the unsuspecting Onamuchi. By the time he realized that the bright red object thundering towards him was most certainly not a boar, it was much too late! Onamuchi burned to a nice crisp, and died.
Upon hearing that her kind, if not perhaps naïve, son had been so brutally murdered, Onamuchi’s mother begged the princesses Kisagai [𧏛貝比売] and Umugai [蛤貝比売] and sent them to revive her child. They complied and found Onamuchi’s burned corpse at the bottom of the mountain. The princesses made a salve from ground clam shells and Onamuchi was quickly restored thanks their efforts.
Upset that their plan had failed, the brothers made another attempt on Onamuchi’s life by trapping him in a tree stump. His mother came to her son’s rescue just in the nick of time. However, she was now greatly troubled by the lengths Onamuchi’s brothers were willing to take to put an end to her youngest son.
She told her son it would be best if he traveled to Ne no Kuni (Yomi) to seek the advice of our great dragon slayer, Susano-o. Obediently, Onamuchi set out for the land of the dead.
Coming next time…
Another beautiful princess, the return of Susano-o, the trails of Onamuchi, and a big name change.
The legends continue…