shimane — part III: the white hare of inaba

06Aug12

If you visit the outdoor sculpture garden at the Shimane Art Museum in Matsue, you are apt to stumble upon groups of visitors posing for photographs while crouched down like running rabbits.  If you move closer to the rabbit folk you’ll notice that they’re imitating the stance of a series of bronze rabbit sculptures running across the museum lawn.  And if you look at the rabbits intently enough, you’ll eventually realize that this is actually a sculpture of a single rabbit in motion, captured in freeze frame like a leporine version of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  What you’ve actually stumbled across is Shinji-ko Rabbit (宍道湖うさぎ), a sculpture by Yabuuchi Satoshi (籔内佐斗司).

The sculpture is quite clearly a reference to the famous story of the White Hare of Inaba (因幡の白兎), one of the most important tales from the Kojiki to involve the god Okuninushi.  Here’s the story as Wikipedia tells it (with a few emendations by me):

Ōkuninushi (at the time he was just Ōnamuji without the august nickname) and his brothers, eighty gods altogether, were all suitors seeking the hand of Princess Yakami/Yagami (八上比売?) of Inaba in marriage. They were all traveling together from their home country of Izumo to the neighboring Inaba to court her.

Along the way, the brothers encountered a poor little rabbit or hare, flayed and raw-skinned, lying in agony upon the sea shore. The group asked what happened, and the hare explained that he came from the island of Oki across the sea. He thought of a marvelous way to accomplish this, and recruited the crocodiles (wani (鰐,和邇?), interpreted as an imagined creature based on a shark) into his service, unbeknownst to them. He beckoned one crocodile, and challenged him to a contest to decide which of them had the largest clan, the rabbit or the croc-fish. To settle the bet, he told the croc-fish to line up in a straight row across the strait, so he could hop on and count the numbers. But before the hare had completely gotten ashore to safety, he gloated about having tricked them, and the last croc in line grabbed him and tore off the fur that clothed him.

The gods who listened on were cruel-hearted, and as a prank, instructed the hare to wash himself in the briny sea, and blow himself dry in the wind. The hare was of course in much more stinging pain than before. Then along came Ōkuninushi lagging far behind. The gentle-hearted god told the hare to go to the mouth (of the river) and wash himself in the fresh water, then gather the flowering spikes of cattail plants growing all around, and scatter the catkins on the ground and tumble around until he was covered by fleece. The cured rabbit, now white,  then made a divine prediction that Ōnamuji would be the one to win Princess Yakami, “Though thou bearest the bag.” (Evidently his brother was treating him as a luggage carrier, and that was why he was outpaced by the rest of the group).

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it fits right in with what is seemingly a cross-cultural figuration of the rabbit as trickster (though always a trickster that just as often as not falls prey to its own cleverness).  The Bre’r Rabbit stories come immediately to mind, of course, but so does the rabbit god El-ahrairah — “the prince with a thousand enemies” — from Watership Down, the novel by Richard Adams.

The rabbit on the shore of Lake Shinji is a trickster too, multiplying its kindred into the millions as it convinces visitors to become rabbits themselves for a brief spell, all the while reproducing the rabbit population over and over a thousandfold through the procreative device of the camera’s shutter.



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