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.
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.
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.
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.)