Since my daughter was a baby, she’s been obsessed with rabbits (usagi, in Japanese). We first had a stuffed sheep doll for her, but she quickly became enamoured of a musical pink bunny whose cord she could pull to start up a lullaby. When my wife’s great-grand aunt brought a white bunny with a purple ribbon as an early birthday gift, my daughter was hooked.
I don’t think the bunny was ever meant to be an actual child’s toy – we had to repair it on more than one occasion, as my daughter enjoys throwing it up in the air and flinging it by its feet — but it quickly became inseparable from our daily life. Usagi-san’s ears were frequently subject to all sorts of decorations: hair-bonnets, rubber bands, arm bracelets, hair clips and anything else my daughter could figure out how to attach.
At some point I started to pretend to be Usagi-san and “talk” to my daughter to get her to eat food she didn’t like (which was basically everything from age 2 to 3). From that point, Usagi-san became a part of our family. Our eldest would bring the doll to bed every night and pat it on the stomach saying, “Ne-ne shite” [Go to sleep]. She would bring it to every meal and make it taste her food to make sure the food was OK to eat. She would pretend that Usagi-san was sick and give it medicine. Once she started nursery school, Usagi would also go to “animals nursery school.” After some time, she began to insist that Usagi-san was a girl and demanded that my wife make the doll a purple velvet skirt (which eventually stained the bottom half of the doll purple).
The climax of our eldest daughter’s relationship to her “baby” Usagi-san doll came during our first trip to a zoo in Kobe last spring.
We had just moved into a new house, which is near an express train station stop on the line to Kobe. Having never been to Kobe with our daughter, we decided to try it out once we had settled into the house. So sometime in mid-March (when school is not in session in Japan) we set out to the Kobe Oji Zoo…and our daughter insisted on bringing Usagi-san, complete with separate water bottle and towel. To cut a long story short, we accidentally left the bunny doll on a chair at the outdoor food court, and didn’t notice it until we were already on the one-hour plus train ride home. Luckily, my eldest was asleep at the time.
My wife called the zoo, and the staff promised to look for the doll. As we waited on the train ride to hear back from the zoo, I began to dread the explanation to my daughter upon waking. It really did feel like we had left a family member behind. Fortunately, the zoo staff called less than half an hour later to say that they had found the doll and could mail it to us if we were willing to pay for the shipping. The shipping turned out to be cheaper than a return train ticket, so we gave them our address. Still, we had to break the news to our daughter that she wouldn’t see Usagi-san for two days.
I never want to see that expression on her face again, when we broke the news to her. Arriving at home, both daughters woke up and demanded dinner immediately. Thus we were spared an extra hour or two. My youngest at the time was just a few months old, so she went to sleep quickly thereafter, and when bath time and then bedtime time, my eldest finally asked where her Usagi was.
“Honey, I’m sorry, but Usagi won’t be here tonight. She liked the zoo so much that she wanted to stay there tonight.”
Remember, this is a bunny doll that my daughter had treated like her own sister, and sometimes had even called “my baby.” At times, my daughter would say, “Usagi is just a doll,” but it was clear from her actions that Usagi was anything but “just” a doll. Usagi was a person…or at least, part of my daughter’s burgeoning sense of personality and self separate from her parents. She couldn’t bear the thought of being apart from it for even a couple of hours, let alone an entire evening. Or two.
When the dust had settled, we managed to convince our daughter that Usagi would be fine, and that she definitely would be coming home in two days with amazing stories to tell. So our daughter reluctantly decided that she could somehow survive without Usagi for the next two nights. Kids really are amazingly flexible, given time and a tiny bit of understanding. Just before we headed upstairs to sleep, she asked if she could “call” Usagi to say good night. Using her toy phone (my old “dumb phone” from a few years prior), she called Usagi at the zoo to tell the bunny doll that everything would be all right, and that she wouldn’t be lonely at night because her panda could protect her. “Are you cold, Usagi? No? The lions and tigers are talking with you? OK, I’m glad you made some friends. See you again soon.”
I don’t want to imagine what would have happened had we not recovered Usagi. Or rather, if the zoo staff hadn’t recovered her.
We have been perhaps a bit more fortunate with our youngest, who was a baby during the first “Usagi vs Bear” weekend. Our youngest was given a bear doll by her relatives in Kumamoto: “Kumamon.” At least we’re spared any bunny versus bear arguments at home.