By Mao A.
In this blog post, we explain what Juunishi – the Japanese zodiac animals symbols adopted from China – is, and how Japanese people incorporate it in their lifestyle. Based on the fact that Juunishi is commonly seen concept especially around New Year in Japan, the writer extends the observation to what the traditional New Year is like in Japan and whether people celebrate the Chinese New Year
What is Juunishi?
The Juunishi, (Nowadays, more commonly called “Eto”) are zodiacal animals that form a 12-year cycle. Ancient Chinese people viewed Jupiter as an important star, and since it circulates around the sun every 12 year, they decided to use the number 12 as a cycle to count years. The ancient Chinese people implemented 12 animals to represent the different years of the 12-year cycle. The order of the animals are as follows; the Rat(子/ne), Ox(丑/ushi), Tiger(寅/tora), Rabbit(卯/u, usagi), Dragon(辰/tatsu, ryu), Snake(巳/mi, hebi), Horse(午/uma), Sheep(未/hitsuji), Monkey(申/saru), Rooster(酉/tori, niwatori), Dog(戌/inu), and Boar(亥/i, inoshishi). Although modern Japan only uses the Juunishi to imply years now, in premodern times, Japanese people used these animals to count time as well. For example, 2am, a time that ghosts were said to most appear, was called Ushimitsu-doki(丑三つ時witching hour). The ‘Ushi'(丑) of this word comes from the Juunishi. Japanese refer to 12am Shogo(正午), and the 午 derives from the Juunishi animal as well.
Likewise with astrological horoscopes, some say that the Juunishi also portray the characteristics of one. It is often used in fortune telling. The animal of the year one was born in is something one should note. 2022 is the year of the Tiger, and those who were born in the year of the Tiger (2010, 1998, 1986…) are called Toshi-Otoko (Man of the Year) or Toshi-Onna(Woman of the Year) this year. It is said that they would be blessed throughout the year.
How do Japanese people use Juunishi?
The Juunishi can be seen in Japan throughout the year, yet the time in year one will see the Juunishi of the year the most is in the New Year season. Greeting cards sent in the beginning of the year usually have illustrations of the year’s animal. At shrines and temples, figures of the year’s animal are sold and are said to bring luck to the household. Also on Emas, which are wooden plaques that people write their wishes or prayers on, can we see the drawings of the animal.
What is New Year’s like in Japan – What do people do ?
As the Juunishi is used the most around the New Year’s season, now we like to answer another question which is; what is New Year’s like in Japan? During Oshogatsu– the New Years, families gather and eat toshikoshi soba, osechi, and ozoni and watch TV and chat. In the New Year, many Japanese families go out to Hatsumode; to visit shrines and temples to wish the gods and deities for luck and prosperity for the new year. At the shrine or temple, Japanese people will buy an Ema, Omamori (lucky charms) or figures of the year’s animal to take home. Toshikoshi soba is Japanese buckwheat noodles that Japanese people eat on midnight of December 31st. It is believed that eating this dish will benefit the family the following year and bring luck and health to them. The ingredients or whether the soba is eaten cold or hot depends on the region. For example, in Kyoto prefecture, people eat Nishin Soba, which is a hot soba dish that has sweetened boiled herrings in it. On the other hand, in Fukui prefecture, the locals enjoy cold Echizen Soba, which is famous for the significant amount of grated radish.
Ozoni is also an important dish one should not forget when mentioning New Years in Japan. It is a soup dish that contains vegetables, and mochi (rice cakes). It is interesting to note the difference of the ingredients used, depending on the region this dish is made in. For example, in the Eastern area, the soup is in many cases made of Soy sauce, and in Western households, miso is used as the base ingredient.
Other than the topic of food, greeting cards are closely embedded in Japanese culture as well. Japanese New Years greeting cards are a kind of postcard that Japanese people send to their close friends, relatives, and colleagues. The Juunishi of the year is commonly printed on the cards, and they are sent to show gratitude and appreciation, and to wish the receiver well.
Do Japanese people celebrate Chinese New Year?
Since the Juunishi is an adopted concept from Ancient China, we wanted to ask another commonly asked question which is: Do Japanese people celebrate Chinese New Year? Modern Japanese people do not celebrate the Chinese New Year (also known as the Lunar New Year). Until the Edo period (1600~1867) Japan applied the old Japanese calendar that was based on the lunisolar calendar, therefore they celebrated the Chinese New Year. However as European culture and norms were introduced in the Meiji era, Japan decided to apply the new solar calendar. Since then, they no longer celebrate the Chinese New Year. In spite of that, there are still events such as illuminations and lion dances held in Chinatowns in Japan that celebrate the Chinese New Year.
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