By Mao Asabe
In this article, we explain the Japanese zodiac (or juunishi, meaning 12 symbols), and how Japanese people incorporate it in their lifestyles. With juunishi symbols being highly linked to the traditional New Year in Japan, we delve into what the traditional New Year is like in Japan, and whether people celebrate the Chinese New Year.
What are the Japanese zodiac animals?
The juunishi, (Nowadays, more commonly called “eto“) are zodiacal animals that represent a 12-year cycle, and originate from ancient Chinese culture. Ancient Chinese astrologists viewed Jupiter as a particularly important star, and as it circulates around the sun every 12 years, they decided to use its cycle to count the years. The ancient Chinese people implemented 12 animals to represent the different years of the 12-year cycle. The order of the animals is 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 the Japanese zodiac animals are only used to measure years nowadays, in premodern times, they were used to measure 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 Japanese zodiac – representing the cow. Even nowadays, Japanese people refer to midnight as shogo (正午), with the 午 character also being derived from the Japanese zodiac cow.
Similar to astrological horoscopes, some believe that a person’s Japanese zodiac sign can affect their personality and characteristics. For example, 2022 is the year of the tiger, so those born in were born this year (or in other tiger placement years), and are considered to be brave, strong, independent and fiery personalities. They are also considered toshi-otoko (man of the year) or toshi-onna (woman of the year) this year, and are considered blessed with good luck throughout the year, so keep an eye out for your zodiac year.
How do Japanese people use the Japanese zodiac animals?
The juunishi are prevalent in Japan throughout the year, but are most commonly seen in the New Year season. New Year’s greeting cards usually have illustrations of the Japanese zodiac animal of the year. At shrines and temples, zodiac animal figures are sold, being said to bring luck to the household. They can also be found on wooden ema plaques, which people write their wishes or prayers on. If you visit a Japanese temple at the right time of year, you will likely see
How is Japanese New Year celebrated?
As the juunishi are 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 Year season, 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 dish has its own regional varieties, with different ingredients and serving styles. 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 answer another commonly asked question: “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, the Chinese New Year was no longer widely celebrated in Japan. This is not to say that it is not observed at all however, as there are still events such as light shows and lion dances held in Chinatowns across Japan that celebrate the Chinese New Year and Chinese culture.
Keep checking back or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter to get notified about our latest posts. We’ll be adding more articles on seasonal and cultural occasions in Japan, so watch this space!