All about the Japanese zodiac

As opposed to the Western Zodiac which is based on the stars and planets, the Japanese Zodiac is based on years. It is based on a 12-year cycle, each year represented by an animal.

Japanese... or Chinese?

Let's get one thing out of the way before we continue. The Japanese Zodiac actually isn't Japanese at all, but rather Chinese. This isn't as unusual as it may seem at first. China was the superpower in the region back in the day, and so in the same way that many countries in Europe borrowed from the Roman Empire, Japan was always borrowing from China.

The Chinese zodiac was just one of many Chinese things that found their way to Japan.

Along with the zodiac, they also took the Chinese new year, which might tell you why new year is such a big event here. (Unfortunately for China, when Japan opened to the West they shifted New Years to Jan 1st in an effort to be more like the successful West.)

Anyways, so each year in the Chinese zodiac is represented by an animal.

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

  • Rat
  • Ox
  • Tiger
  • Rabbit
  • Dragon
  • Snake
  • Horse
  • Sheep
  • Monkey
  • Rooster
  • Dog
  • Pig
In that order.

As I write this in 2010, last year was the year of the ox (or cow), so this year is the year of the tiger. Why these animals and this order? Who knows, but there is a fun little mythological story for the origin of it.

The race to see who wins the years

The Jade Emperor (basically the top god in Chinese myth) held a race to decide what animals would be placed in the zodiac. He gathered all the animals together and informed them that the first twelve to reach his house the next day would be given the year equal to the position they finished the race in.

The next day, the animals set out...

There was a big river, and the rat and the cat were bad swimmers, so they decided to hitch a ride on the back of the powerful ox. Overcome by competitiveness, the rat pushed the cat into the river, which is why cats today hate water and hate rats even more.

After the ox crossed the river, the rat jumped off and won easily, with the ox a close second. The first and second animals of the zodiac.

The tiger came next, panting, and told how the current was so strong he never would have made it if not for his powerful strength. He was made the 3rd animal of the zodiac.

The rabbit hopped up next, and told how he crossed the river by hopping from stone to stone and the occasional log. He became the 4th animal of the zodiac.

The dragon came next. “How is it that a powerful creature such as yourself was not first?” asked the Emperor, deeply curious. The dragon replied that he had to stop to make rain to help all the people of earth, and so was delayed.

(Note: The Chinese Dragon is considered a good creature as opposed to the somewhat demonic view of European Dragons, also they look more like giant snakes.)

Then on his way to the finish, he saw the rabbit struggling to cross the river and so gave a puff of breath to blow the poor creature to shore. The Emperor was deeply pleased by his kindness, and made him the 5th animal of the zodiac.

The horse came galloping up next, but hidden in the horse’s hoof was the snake. The snake’s appearance frightened the horse so much he momentarily fell back allowing the snake beat him, giving the snake the 6th spot while the horse took the 7th.

The ram, monkey, and rooster came next. They worked together to spot a raft and use it to get to shore. The ram took 8th, the monkey 9th, and the rooster 10th.

The dog was next. His excuse for not coming in first despite being the best swimmer of the bunch was that he hadn’t taken a bath in a long time and the water of the river just gave him too big of a chance to pass up. He took 11th.

The pig came in last, explaining that he got so hungry during the race he decided to have a feast, then promptly fell asleep afterwards. After waking up, he continued on the race. He was named the 12th and last animal of the zodiac.

Almost immediately after the pig, the cat came across, but he was too late, there was no room for 13. Furious, he immediately went chasing after the rat.

Fun story, huh?

Director's Cut

There is an alternate version of the tale that explains the cat's absence a little differently. According to this version, the cat slept through god's meeting and so missed the details of the race. After the meeting he woke and asked his best friend, the rat, what the meeting was about. The rat related all the details, except purposely telling the cat the wrong day. So the cat shows up early in the morning at god's house the day after the race, thinking he won. Informed of the rat's lie, they become enemies forever.

So there you have it, the story of the Japanese zodiac. The only real change the Japanese make here is they occasionally change the animals to make them "cuter", such as using a pig instead of a boar or a cow instead of an Ox.

Anything Else?

Well, yes. It’s actually a good deal more complicated than this, involving hours and directions and all that fun feng shui (FUNG-SHWAY) stuff, but these are the only details most people know. If there is enough interest in it, I will gladly write another article explaining them in more detail (as much as I know anyways).

I’m a Horse, by the way. What are you?

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