The Starstruck Japanese

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Japanese culture can, in some ways, be so different from our own. We’re all pretty much the same in the ways that really count, but the small differences still seem kind of weird.

Take the stars, for instance. We all see a lot of the same things when we look up into the sky at night, but beyond the fact that there are stars up there, we don’t seem to agree on a whole lot else.

Every culture see its own culture reflected up in the sky, in the constellations that they draw for themselves. And even within Japan, there are lots of different stories about the same constellations.

While a lot of people in Japan today probably can’t even see the stars beyond the bright city lights, the stories are still something familiar in Japanese culture.

Rabbit on the Moon

Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of folklore; I had a VHS tape of the story of Momotaro that I watched over and over, a book about the crab and the monkey (HE JUST WANTED A PERSIMMON), and a few other stories, so I knew a fair bit of Japanese folklore as a kid.

Keeping that in mind, the western notion of a man in the moon never really made sense to me. In the western canon, there’s the idea that the valleys and craters and mountains of the moon create a shape that looks like a man’s face.

It might make sense if you’re drowsy and are squinting and there’s a half moon, but I personally have always had a hard time visualizing it.

On the other hand in the Japanese tradition, there’s a rabbit up on the moon instead, hangin’ out and makin’ mochi (like rabbits do). For me at least, it’s a lot easier to visualize than a man on the moon.

Like a lot of things in Japanese culture, Japan shares the story of the rabbit on the moon with China and Korea, although it’s a little different in each culture.

But even in Japan, the stars can look a lot different from person to person. Just take Orion’s Belt.

Orion’s Belt/Drum/Clappers/Kimono

One of the most iconic constellations around is Orion’s Belt, named after the mythical Greek figure. It’s a big, simple constellation that’s pretty easy for almost anybody to point out in the sky.

Obviously, the Japanese didn’t know the constellation by that name hundreds of years ago; that’s not really a surprise to anybody. What is surprising is that it was called something different in different parts of Japan.

The constellation itself looks like two trapezoids kind of crashing into each other but the interpretations, as this article shows, are all over the place. Some Japanese people saw the constellation as a tsuzumi, a traditional Japanese drum that has a similar sort of hour glass shape.

Photo by Angie Harms

That kinda makes sense to me (maybe even moreso than Orion), but Japan’s interpretation of the stars doesn’t stop there, not by a long shot. People also thought the stars looked like hyoushigi, or wooden clappers that are used in traditional Japanese theater. Definitely an original approach, I’ll give them that much.

Photo from Wikipedia

And it goes on and on. Other people see the long sleeve of a kimono hanging down. Others see an epic battle between two warring factions. Others see the cat from the original Men In Black (well, maybe not).

Everybody tells a story with constellations, it’s just that they’re usually different stories, even in a country as small as Japan. Instead of a Greek hunter, the Japanese have a bunch of different stories and symbols that they stick to the skies to make sense of stars that are lightyears away. (At least until Gundam warfare destroys them all.)

  • Guest

    no pics for the epic battle? aww =( *just joking*

  • Argos

    In Mexico there’s also a rabbit on the moon instead of a face. To this day I still cannot visualize a face on the moon, but I can instantly see the rabbit.

  • Mescale

    How come Sunday is called Sunday in Japan?
    And why is Monday, AkA Moonday called Moon day in Japan. These coincidences can’t just be coincidences, coincidences don’t just happen all the time.

  • Mescale

    Your google fu is weak old man.

    http://cjvlang.com/Dow/dowjpn.html

  • Elliot

    I can understand thinking the man on the moon story is crap (I do too– my family never passed down to me such nonsense), but come on, the rabbit story is just as bad. Both are hard to visualize from an outside perspective, and are about as realistic as teaching kids that the moon is made of cheese.

    I think instead the the world should scrap men and rabbits and just tell the story of the “impact craters who collected dust.” It’s about a bunch of impact craters on the moon who sat and did nothing until the sun ultimately dies and the earth and moon are swallowed up. It’d make a great bedtime story.

  • http://www.axelintu.com/ Alejandro Flores

    There’s even a story in the lectures book for the first grade of elementary school in México, about the rabbit, or, at least it was when I was a kid.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    That’s a really interesting link. I guess it’s a good thing you’re Google fu is weak or you wouldn’t have posted it.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Being brought up with science programs since I was young (starting with ‘Cosmos’ with Carl Sagan), it took a long time for me to see anything on the moon other than craters and lava fields (those big dark patches). I have to intentionally look for it to see it, since I prefer seeing the beautiful landscape without the filter of imagined faces (or rabbits for that matter, no matter how much I want some mochi).

    It’s not even a human face, it’s a crescent with a nose like protrusion and some uneven spaces that look like a brow, eye sockets, and a mouth (it’s in profile after all). Basically, it’s the laziest imagined figure ever (sorry Man Inthemoon (had to give it a proper name…)), since humans are wired to see faces in everything.

  • Argos

    cute! I grew up in the US so I didn’t know about that but my parents and sisters grew up there, so that’s what I was taught.

  • WhiteRice

    I am not familiar with either stories, but when I see a full moon I can see the face of a woman. It’s hard for me not to see it.

  • FoxiBiri

    woah you’re right. no matter where you go it’s still sunday! it’s always sunday!