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Rabbits in Japanese culture

In every culture there are special animals, mythical creatures, to which that given culture attaches particular meanings. As the 22nd of January is the start of the Year of the Rabbit in Japan, we thought we would take a look at the significance of our eared friends in Japanese culture, as bunnies not only appear in Japanese astrology, but also in tales, legends and even shrines that are guarded by bunny ears.

Counting time in Japan

It is reasonable to ask how can there be a 3-week difference between the start of the New Year and the Year of the Rabbit. Well, the explanation is simple. Until 1873, Japan used the Tenpō calendar, which is a solar calendar. A solar calendar takes into account not only the movement of the sun but also the movement of the moon. This type of calendar is used in many Far Eastern cultures to this day. In 1873, however, Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar, which is also used in Europe. Nevertheless, of course, the events and beliefs that were based on the earlier calendar have not disappeared from Japanese culture.

Japanese astrology

Japanese astrology is based on Chinese astrology, which spread to Japan in the 4th to 5th centuries AD. In the Land of the Rising Sun, there are 12 zodiac signs (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Boar). However, unlike in Europe, these are not associated with the moon but with the Jupiter cycle, which lasts 12 years. Thus, in this system, a zodiac sign lasts not for 1 month but for a year. This is why we are talking about the year of the rabbit this year.

Roughly as many sources ascribe different qualities to people born in the year of the rabbit, but in general it is family, prosperity, peace and kindness that are perhaps most commonly associated with them. Let's face it, these associations are not far off from what we in Europe first think of bunnies.

Religion and rabbits

The ancient religion of Japan is Shintoism, which origins are lost in the mists of time because it is more ancient than Japanese literacy. And although, like all religions, Shintoism has changed a lot over the millennia, certain basic things have remained constant. One of these is that in this religion the gods are replaced by kamis, of which there are more than 8 million. In the broadest sense, a kami can be anything that is phenomenal and inspires awe, fear, piety or reverence. Consequently, there are many Shinto shrines in Japan, most of which are guarded by foxes.

There is, however, one exception that is relevant to this writing, the Okazaki shrine in Kyoto, which is associated with the gods of fertility and childbirth. In Japanese belief, the messengers of these gods are rabbits. This is why the shrine and its surroundings are full of rabbit images in the form of sculptures, reliefs and paintings.

Tales about rabbits

As there are scores of animal tales in European culture, it is no different in Japan.

The following two tales are very popular in Japan and since plagiarism is not our bread and butter, we link sources where you can read these tales.

Me and the bunnies

Of course, bunnies also appear in many other areas of Japanese culture and art. In the form of sculptures, paintings, computer games, etc. Personally, we love the little fluffy bunny ears. In our webshop you can find examples of how I see bunnies.


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