Junishi: the 12 signs of the zodiac   十二支

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The signs of the Chinese Zodiac

12 animals and 5 elements for astrological signs

Who hasn't checked their horoscope? Called "Junishi", the twelve signs of the Japanese zodiac are taken from the Chinese lunar calendar. And although the lunar calendar is no longer used in Japan, the twelve zodiac signs related to it are still very much present in Japanese culture.

Twelve signs from the Chinese calendar

Named Genka-reki, the Chinese calendar was created in 425 in northern China. Starting on the first day of the lunar year rather than on the first of January, the calendar is based on a 60-year cycle simplified into smaller cycles of 12 years each. Each year of the mini-cycle is then associated with one of the five elements of the zodiac (metal, water, wood, fire and earth) and an animal.

Widely used to orient us in time and space, the lunar calendar crossed China's borders to other Asian countries a few centuries later. It was introduced in Korea in the 600s, and then in Japan, by Chinese Buddhist monks.

Among the animals used in the calendar are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar.

Rat ( nezumi )

1900 1960 (Metal)
1912 1972 (Water)
1924 1984 (Wood)
1936 1996 (Fire)
1948 2008 (Earth)

Ox ( ushi )

1901 1961 (Metal)
1913 1973 (Water)
1925 1985 (Wood)
1937 1997 (Fire)
1949 2009 (Earth)

Tiger ( tora )

1902 1962 (Water)
1914 1974 (Wood)
1926 1986 (Fire)
1938 1998 (Ter.)
1950 2010 (Met.)

Rabbit ( usagi )

1903 1963 (Water)
1915 1975 (Wood)
1927 1987 (Fire)
1939 1999 (Earth)
1951 2011 (Metal)

Dragon ( tatsu )

1904 1964 (Wood)
1916 1976 (Fire)
1928 1988 (Earth)
1940 2000 (Metal)
1952 2012 (Water)

Snake ( hebi )

1905 1965 (Wood)
1917 1977 (Fire)
1929 1989 (Ter.)
1941 2001 (Met)
1953 2013 (Water)

Horse ( uma )

1906 1966 (Fire)
1918 1978 (Earth)
1930 1990 (Metal)
1942 2002 (Water)
1954 2014 (Wood)

Sheep ( hitsuji )

1907 1967 (Fire)
1919 1979 (Earth)
1931 1991 (Metal)
1943 2003 (Water)
1955 2015 (Wood)

Monkey ( saru )

1908 1968 (Ter.)
1920 1980 (Metal)
1932 1992 (Water)
1944 2004 (Wood)
1956 2016 (Fire)

Rooster ( tori )

1909 1969 (Earth)
1921 1981 (Metal)
1933 1993 (Water)
1945 2005 (Wood)
1957 2017 (Fire)

Dog ( inu )

1910 1970 (Metal)
1922 1982 (Water)
1934 1994 (Wood)
1946 2006 (Fire)
1958 2018 (Earth)

Boar ( inoshishi )

1911 1971 (Metal)
1923 1983 (Water)
1935 1995 (Wood)
1947 2007 (Fire)
1959 2019 (Ter.)

There are several legends regarding the choice and order of appearance of these animals on the calendar. One of the best known is that of the Buddha's dinner:

One day, the Buddha organized a large dinner for himself and 12 others, to which the animals of his kingdom were invited. He decreed that the first twelve animals that arrived would be granted the honor of dining with him, along with being proclaimed "animal-symbol" for a whole year, based on the order that they arrived.

The animals, hearing the news, of course all rushed to be first to arrive to the home of the Buddha.

Buddha and the twelve animals of the zodiac

The story goes that at first the ox was ahead in the race, but he was deceived by the rat, who, when they reached a river they needed to cross, asked the ox if he could travel on his back as he was too small to manage himself. The cat also asked the ox for a ride, and the kind-hearted ox agreed to help them both. As they crossed, the rat pushed the cat into the river, to stop him getting to the dinner. When they reached the other side of the river, the rat jumped off the ox, and was named the first animal of the zodiac calendar. From this legend comes the idea that people born in the year of the ox are naive, while those born in the year of the rat can't be trusted. This myth also explains why the cat is constantly trying to hunt the rat - for revenge! 

Then came the tiger, then the rabbit, and the dragon. The dragon was initially the favorite of the race because of his ability to fly. Unfortunately for him, he stopped on the way to help a village that was in trouble. Hence the idea that people born in the year of the dragon are generous.

Then came the snake and the horse. Like the rat, the snake played a cunning trick to reach the Buddha's home. He hid in the mane of the horse and jumped in front of him when they arrived, to scare him and win a place in the zodiac calendar.

From this the idea arose that the people born in the year of the horse are easily scared, and that those in the year of the snake like to play mean tricks.

Then came the sheep, the monkey and the rooster, who made the journey together, then the dog and finally the boar. They both finished the race with a lot of delays because they stopped on the way: the dog to have fun, and the boar to eat.

An origami rat

Related superstitions

As with any astrological model, the signs of the junishi are accompanied by superstitions.

The personality of a person born under a particular sign is believed to be influenced by the character traits of the animal associated with it, and it's thought possible to predict the future of a relationship based on the compatibility of the signs of the two lovers. So, people born in the year of the pig like to live well, and those born in the year of the dog are faithful in love and friendship. However, not everyone is in the same boat!

This is because as well as the animals, elements that also correspond to each year of birth are factored in. So a person born in the year of the metal horse would not have the same personality as a person born in the year of the water horse.

See also: Japanese superstitions

Speaking of horses... Have you ever heard of hinoeuma?

This superstition surrounding the Chinese zodiac is certainly one of the best known. According to legend, women born under the year of the fire horse are considered too headstrong and independent, even dangerous, by men!

While this might sound ridiculous, it nevertheless seems to be taken seriously by the Japanese, since every sixty years, the number of births during the year of the fire horse falls, with couples afraid to give birth to a little girl who may have poor marriage prospects. That's why during the last hinoeuma in 1966, the birth rate mysteriously decreased from 2.14 to 1.58 and skyrocketed the following year.

Fortunately, not everything is bad luck in junishi! Every twelve years, each sign is entitled to its share of happiness. Called ''toshi-otoko'' if it's a man, or ''toshi-onna'' if it's a woman, a person born under the animal-sign of the current year will have luck and happiness for a year. But it's nothing compared to what awaits them when they reach the age of 60!

With the lunar calendar completing a full cycle every 60 years, it's a very special occasion turning 60 and the Japanese celebrate completing this cycle. Called "kanreki", this special year is one of the luckiest of the junishi!

Signs still present in Japanese society

An effective way to find your bearings in time, the lunar calendar has long been used by the Japanese to tell the time.

Each animal represents one year of a 12-year cycle, but also one day of a 12-day cycle and two hours of the same day, so it was quite simple to know the date and time when looking at the calendar.

To read: The date and time in Japanese

With the lunar calendar, the day begins at midnight with the rat. When the clock hand reaches the ox, we know that two hours have passed. This method was also used to locate in space. The gap between each animal is 30 degrees, and the rat represents north.

Although Japan moved to the solar (Gregorian) calendar in 1872, the twelve signs of the lunar calendar continue to be used daily in Japanese society.

They are found particularly in temples and shrines in the form of ema, small wooden prayer boards on which visitors write their wishes, but also on the end-of-year greeting cards that are sent as New Year approaches.

See also: Celebrating Chinese New Year

New year cards

Ema decorated with animals of the zodiac

A zodiac clock

Great Buddha, Asuka

Also note that many places of worship follow the rhythm of Chinese zodiac animals. The inari shrines, for example, dedicated to the god of the harvest, organize their annual festival every first day of the horse in February, while Benzaiten temples, dedicated to the Buddhist deity of the same name, organize theirs on the first snake day of the month. This is because the inari deity is linked to agriculture, where horses were used, while the Benzaiten goddess is associated with the snake and the dragon.

The twelve signs regularly appear in Buddhist temples where they are personified as guardians of Buddha.

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