Friday, 31 December 2010

Year of the Usagi

Helmet with large hare's ear crest, probably made of lacquered linen or paper
Happy New Year!

Perhaps confusingly, Japan starts the New Year on Jan 1st, but also uses the Chinese astrological designations for each year - the Year of the Tiger is over here, and the Year of the Hare has just begun.

I don't know if there is any value in characterising years by their astrological sign, but if there were, I would say that this past year has lived up to its image of power and ferocity, leaving its claws in to the very last.

The hare is quite different, of course, and interesting as a symbol. Though often translated as rabbit, it is not the Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter kind of animal, but more Brer Rabbit. Many Japanese folktales attest to this side of its nature. The earliest mention I know of is from the Kojiki, where the white hare has got stuck on an island, and to get off tricks all the sharks in the area to line up between the island and the coast on the pretext of counting them to decide whether the hare clan or the shark clan is largest. The hare runs across their backs to the mainland - of course, it can't resist a final quip, telling the sharks what it has done, and gets its skin torn off for its pains (surviving to fight another day). From this comes the common image of the hare and waves.

Rabbit in the Moon menuki - courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute
Artistically, the Japanese hare looks much like our cuddly bunny. It was much used by the samurai as a symbol of speed and determination to go forwards. Interestingly, the samurai didn't feel a need to always use 'tough-looking' symbols to portray military prowess. As part of a wider culture with multiple meanings in different fields (military, religious, political, personal) they had wider concerns than looking mean and surly - if you were a professional, spending a large amount of your life campaigning, you didn't have to try to look military - you were anyway.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi:s depiction of Shinozuka Iga-no-kami, a 14th century warrior
Quite a few examples, from a variety of historical periods show hare crests, sword ornaments, helmet decorations etc. The recent exhibition at the Met in New York had a good example of rabbit ears on a helmet, for example, and in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, the general Miki Yoshiaki (the noble Banquo character) has a hare crest on his sashimono (banner) and ears on his helmet.

Still from Throne of Blood - note the crest on the banner on the left. You can just see the small hare ears on his helmet, too.

So, returning to the story above, the image I have for this year, is running swiftly towards your goal, passing freely over the waves over the backs of the sharks (and avoiding their jaws if you just keep your mouth shut for long enough).

Best wishes to you all.

Tsuba from late 16th/early 17th century (

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