Dumplings are people's prayer to the moon for the year's good harvest.
What do you see when you look at the full moon? We learn from science books that no matter where we are, in looking at the moon, we are all, in fact, seeing the same side of the moon. However,depending on local folklore our interpretation may differ. Some say the moon surface resembles the face of a man or a mule, while others see an alligator or a big crab.
When Japanese look at a full moon, they have always seen a rabbit pounding ricecakes, a myth derived from a Chinese folk tale that two rabbits live on the moon. This "full moon and rabbit" story has long been a symbol of the coming of autumn for the Japanese and there is even a special night for moon-viewing. On the night of the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, the night of the full moon, families and friends gather to enjoy tsukimi (moon-viewing). Placing a dish of small round white dumplings or taros with pampas grass arrangements as an offering to the moon, Japanese go out onto their balconies and rejoice in the full moon.
What do you see in the moon? Do you see a rabbit?
What lies behind this passion for the moon and viewing the moon? The answer lies in the lifestyle of the Japanese, traditionally an agricultural people. In ancient times, Japanese lived and farmed according to the phases of the moon in the lunar calendar. During the busy harvest season, when work continued past sunset, farmers also had to work by moonlight. The moon was so essential to their life that it was deemed divine. Therefore, to pray and give thanks for a bountiful harvest, a festival was held just before harvest season, coinciding with the best time to enjoy a clear view of the full moon. On the night of tsukimi, instead of being watched over or having to help their parents harvest, the children of the farm villages were allowed to play after sunset and to steal the offerings. Farmers believed that the more dumplings and taros were stolen, the bigger the harvest and their happiness would be.
Comes autumn, rabbit-shaped buns with bean-jam filling go on sale.
Later in the Heian period (794-1192), the nobles began to observe tsukimi as a pastime, dressing up and gathering under the full moon to read poems, play music and enjoy drinking, highlighting the elegant side of the viewing. This graceful and charming custom was passed down the ranks and spread among the ordinary people by the time of the Edo period (1603-1867). In spring, there was the drinking under the cherry blossoms, in summer the fireworks over the river, and in autumn, the full moon. People enjoyed appreciating the beauty of each of the seasons.
Nowadays, in the big modern cities also, people continue to share in this appreciation for the moon, albeit not in the sense of praying for a good harvest. Nevertheless, come autumn, there are sweets, stationeries and art works on sale which have rabbit or full moon designs, and poem reading festivals and moon-viewing events are held all across the country. The moon with its powerful allure, full of beauty, legend, myth and romance, continues to capture the minds of the Japanese. Consider that when looking up at the moon tonight.