Having just celebrated Japanese New Year with my wife and family over in Japan, I thought I would touch on the subject of the zodiac in Japan. Although the zodiac has no real religious context in Japan, it’s a popular subject of conversation and culture, and you can see signs of it everywhere:
The Japanese calendar was originally based off the Chinese Lunar calendar, though this changed in the late 19th century when Japan moved toward rapid Westernization and industrialization. However, the 12-animal zodiac, or jūnishi (十二支), is still an important part of the culture. In Japanese culture, like Chinese culture, the calendar is divided into a 12-animal cycle that rotates year after year. Even hours of the day were divided by these same animals, with the time starting at midnight, the hour of the rat, and noon being the hour of the horse.
The animals, their names and kanji are listed as follows:
A few things to note:
- Unlike the Chinese calendar, the “pig” has been replaced by a “boar”, which are common in the mountainous areas of Japan, even today.
- The Kanji for these characters are quite different than the ones in daily use. The regular Kanji for Dog is 犬 but in the zodiac it’s 戌.
- Some of the animals also have different readings than daily use. Compare the snake, “hebi” in daily use, with “mi” in the zodiac.
Things can be divided further and further though. You can divide these by five elements: earth, fire, water, air and metal. These can then be divided even further into a pair of “stems”, for a total of ten stems. The stems related to the notion of yin/yang, or inyō in Japanese (陰陽). Japanese “in” (陰) is yin, while yō (陽) is yang. Often times these are referred to as big brother, or “e” (兄), and little brother, or “to” (弟), as well. These are called jikkan (十干) and are organized like so, with pronunciations added:
|Wood: 木||ki||Yang (e)||甲||kō|
|Fire: 火||hi||Yang (e)||丙||hei|
|Earth: 土||tsuchi||Yang (e)||戊||bo|
|Metal: 金||kane||Yang (e)||庚||kō|
|Water: 水||mizu||Yang (e)||壬||jin|
A few notes here as well:
- All the elements are read as native Japanese “kun yomi” readings only.
- All the stems are kanji that show up elsewhere in Japanese, but here they take on different meanings, readings.
So, how do you read this? If someone is born as the element wood, or “ki” and the yin stem, or “otsu”, this is read as ki no to. If yang stem, then ki no e. That’s why I mentioned “e” and “to” above under yang and yin. The only exception to this rule is “metal” which sounds awkward if you say kane-no-e or kane-no-to, so it gets shortened to ka-no-e or ka-no-to.
Now, putting this altogether. If you consult the chart here, you can figure out for your birth year, what stem and animal is associated with it. So, for me, being born in late 1977, I am a “yin fire snake”, since “丁” is the yin version of fire (see above). Thus, in Japanese, I could say I am hi-no-to-mi, or “fire yin snake”: 火の丁巳
To ask someone what year they are, you can say nani doshi desu ka? (何年ですか).
So, while I don’t believe in the zodiac at all, it does come up in conversation a lot in Japan, so it’s a good subject to get familiar with. You will also see the same formula used in Japanese calendars, which the 10 stems and 12 animals cycling through the days as well. My wife told me that few people take it seriously, but it’s more for idle curiosity. In the West, a devout Christian might still read the Horoscope in the newspaper just to see what it says. I find that when I do this, I find it amusing for about 2 minutes, then I forgot what it said later in the day, so I have no idea whether it comes true or not.
Then again, as the Buddha taught:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.
That’s the opening lines of the Dhammapada, and seems a lot more practical than horoscopes anyway, if you ask me.
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
* – Or, Water Buffalo or Bull depending on who’s doing the translation.