If you follow the Chinese zodiac, 2020 was the year of the rat, the first year of a twelve-year cycle and a symbol of new beginnings. Sure enough, the world has changed drastically over the past months, but these “new beginnings” were probably not what we were expecting.
The next in line is the year of the Ox in 2021. Hopefully, to bring us hope and the opportunity to reset our lives for the better. For real this time.
The zodiac calendar
Japan’s old calendar is derived from the Chinese lunar calendar, imported by Buddhist monks around the 6th century. The monthly cycles of the moon helped people keep track of time. The Chinese lunar calendar is a complex classification system based on a long 60-year cycle divided into shorter 12-year cycles. Each year represents an animal, a zodiac sign, and each short cycle by one of the five elements: earth, fire, metal, water and wood.
In Japan, the Zodiac calendar is known as 干支 (kanshi, also read “eto”), the 12 animals are the 十二支 (jyuunishi) and the five elements are the 五行 (gogyou).
Centuries later, in 1872, Japan dropped the Chinese lunar calendar in favor of the Western calendar, thought to be more modern and predictable. Today, people only refer to the Gregorian calendar (and regnal eras) in daily life, but temples and shrines still use the moon to date their traditional events and important festivals. Even if the Chinese lunar calendar isn’t used, the twelve zodiac signs are still very much ingrained in Japanese culture.
The year of the Ox
Unless they’re into astrology, most Japanese folks aren’t necessarily familiar with the cycles and whichever animal year is coming up. But as we slowly edge towards the end of the year, Chinese zodiac based decorations are displayed everywhere. The twelve animals have heavily used symbols on Japanese New Year postcards called nengajo and protective amulets sold at temples.
On Twitter, Japanese tweeps shared their fun crafting stuff based on the zodiac signs last December.
“I made an Akabeko* from an apple.
Today, I wanted to make an Akabeko. I looked for something red in my home and found an apple. I carefully cut and assembled the apple to make it. I used two different sized straw to make the eyes and used salted sesame for the nose. The head and body are attached with a toothpick. The tail is made from the apple’s stalk.
Is it good for the New Year?”
*Akabeko is a legendary cow, entirely red, from the folklore of Aizu region in Fukushima prefecture.
“The new year is coming soon, so I tried making ox shaped kagami mochi*.”
*Kagami mochi, literally “mirror rice cake”, is a traditional Japanese new year decoration made up of two layers of mochi.
“Before Christmas, I made New Year styled nail art. Since next year is the year of the ox, I made a 3D ox.”
The Chinese zodiac signs in Japanese
Even if you’re not knee-deep into Chinese astrology, knowing how to speak about zodiac signs in Japanese can help you have fun conversations and connect with folks in Japan, especially around New Year’s celebrations.
|Zodiac Animals in Japanese||Romaji||English||Birth year|
|子||ne||Rat||1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008|
|丑||ushi||Ox||1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009|
|寅||tora||Tiger||1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010|
|卯||u||Rabbit (or hare)||1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011|
|辰||tatsu||Dragon||1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012|
|巳||mi||Snake||1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013|
|午||uma||Horse||1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014|
|未||hitsuji||Sheep||1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015|
|申||saru||Monkey||1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016|
|酉||tori||Rooster||1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017|
|戌||inu||Dog||1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018|
|亥||inoshishi||Boar||1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019|
While most of the readings of these kanji are commonly used, the kanji themselves differ whether you’re talking about zodiac signs or the common animal. For instance, while the reading stays the same, the common kanji for “horse” is 馬. The snake is an entirely different kanji and word: 蛇. The sole exception is the ox, which doesn’t change.
|兎||usagi||Rabbit (or hare)|