A Rough Guide to the Chinese Zodiac
Japan, like many of its neighbouring countries in this part of Asia, places special emphasis on the Chinese Zodiac. With Chinese New Year coming up on February 8th, it's a good time to take a look back over the zodiac and its special place in Japanese culture.
Anime take on the animals of the Chinese zodiac
The many legends of the Chinese zodiac are well known across Asia. In particular, the story that explains the order in which the zodiac animals come is particularly well loved. Unlike the Western zodiac or horoscope which runs on a monthly basis - Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, etc. - the Chinese zodiac runs on a 12-yearly cycle, with each year named after one of 12 different animals. As of February 8th we will be no longer be in the year of the Ram, but instead we will be in the year of the Monkey. Why does the Monkey come after a Ram? Because that is the order they finished in the Jade Emperor's race.
According to legend, The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven) had ordered that animals would be designated as the calendar signs by way of a race - the first twelve animals to cross the finish line would be the 12 that would be used, and the calendar would follow the order in which they finished. At the time, the Cat and the Rat were great friends and neighbours; unfortunately the Cat had a habit of sleeping in, so when they heard the news of the race the Cat asked his friend the Rat to wake him early so they could go sign up for the race. The Rat agreed but, come the day of the race, in his excitement he forgot to wake the Cat.
When the race began, the Rat realised he would have no chance of keeping up with the other animals and so asked the Ox to carry him. The Ox agreed, on the proviso that the Rat would sing to him as he ran. However at the last minute, just before the Ox crossed the finish line, the Rat jumped off the Ox's nose, crossing the line first with the Ox in second and the Tiger in third. The Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig finished in that order and make up the rest of the animals in the calendar. Meanwhile, when the Cat awoke to realise the race was over, his hatred of the Rat grew so intense that every time they met, they fought. That is why cats still hate rats to this day.
There are several variations on this story, including the notion that there was an elephant in the race who was scared off by the Rat, though possibly the most famous adaptation in Japan is the anime/manga Fruits Basket, which is well worth a read if you have the time.
Despite this original story being a Chinese legend, it is still very much a part of Japanese culture. This is because up until the late 19th Century, Japan followed China's lunar calendar. Though there is no real religious significance or meaning behind this zodiac in Japan, the tradition is still important. The Dog for instance uses a different kanji (戌 instead of the usual 犬), highlighting its importance, and the snake isn't read as its usual Japanese name hebi, but instead goes by mi. Interestingly, in Japan the Year of the Pig is considered as the Year of the Boar - wild boar (inoshishi) of course being indigenous to the Japanese mainland.
During the New Year's celebrations in Japan you can buy prayer boards (called ema) with the image of the upcoming zodiac animal artistically drawn or painted on the front. On the back of these boards you would write your wishes for the New Year and hang your board at your local temple.
This is just one aspect of how the Chinese zodiac impacts Japanese culture, so it's well worth reading a little more into the subject if you're thinking about moving to Japan. If anyone asks you "nani doshi desu ka?" (何年ですか, What year are you?) over the coming month, now you will have a little context for the conversation that will ensue!