The Japanese Zodiac

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 Road to Sensoji 2

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:

Animal:   Japanese:   Kanji:  
Rat Ne
Ox Ushi
Tiger Tora
Rabbit U
Dragon Tatsu
Snake Mi
Horse Uma
Goat/Sheep Hitsuji
Monkey Saru
Rooster Tori
Dog Inu
Boar Inoshishi

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  • Unlike the Chinese calendar, the “pig” has been replaced by a “boar”, which are common in the mountainous areas of Japan, even today.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:

Element:   Reading:   Yin/Yang:   Stem:   Pronunciation:  
Wood: 木 ki Yang (e)
Yin (to) otsu
Fire: 火 hi Yang (e) hei
Yin (to) tei
Earth: 土 tsuchi Yang (e) bo
Yin (to) ki
Metal: 金 kane Yang (e)
Yin (to) shin
Water: 水 mizu Yang (e) jin
Yin (to) ki

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.

About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Japan, Japanese, Language, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Japanese Zodiac

  1. Stephen says:

    Nice work!
    Have you ever heard the tale about how the animals were chosen, and the order decided for the Chinese Zodiac?

  2. Gerald Ford says:

    Actually, I saw it on Wikipedia, but I think I’ve heard the story before.

    P.S. I am still working on the “Jodo Shu temple” blog post, but I keep getting side-tracked. :p

  3. Elizabeth says:

    So, if I wanted to get a tattoo of my Chinese Zodiac, I would have to use those kanji you’ve listed there? Good to know otherwise anyone who could read kanji properly would be thinking I’m an idiot for having the wrong ones put on my body. o.O;;

  4. Doug says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    This is for the Japanese version only. Chinese appears to use differennt character as shown on Wijipedia. You’re right to be cautious: don’t get something tattooed that you can’t read for sure! :-)

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I actually prefer Japanese kanji. I find Chinese to be too angular, whereas Japanese is more fluid. Maybe it’s just me, but I like the Japanese brush strokes better.

    All I really care, though, is making sure I’d be getting the right kanji on my body (I’ve seen too many tattoos for the hebi kanji) and I don’t want something that isn’t correct. I’m actually a fire snake as well, which was why I was so interested when I came across this webpage, and that’s why I was asking whether or not those (ho no to mi) would be the correct kanji for a zodiac tattoo. ^.^

  6. Doug says:

    Japanese kanji are the same as Chinese kanji, though the calligraphic style may differ. But yes, the source above for the hi no to mi was from a Japanese book on the subject, so it’s about as accurate as I can find.

    Good luck!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Correction …. hi no to mi. I don’t know why I was thinking “ho” instead. <.<;;

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Jeepers, that was quick! Well, thank you very much! I appreciate all the input. Now it’s just a matter of finding someone who can write calligraphy. ^.^;;

  9. Doug says:

    Best of luck. :)

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Okay, another question because this subject can be a trifle confusing. ^.^

    A friend of mine is year of the water boar (yin). So … would hers be “mizu no ki inoshishi” or would it be “mizu no ki to inoshishi?”

  11. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello and welcome to the JLR. The phrase would be, I believe: mizu no to inoshishi. Yang is always read as ‘e and yin as ‘to’ regardless of the individual character. The actual kanji would only come up if it were written, I think.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you! ^.^

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