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Chinese Zodiac in Japan: 2020 is the Year of the Metal Rat!

Chinese Zodiac in Japan: 2020 is the Year of the Metal Rat!

Date published: 10 January 2019
Last updated: 12 November 2019

Just as New Year celebrations finish in the West, folks are gearing up to mark Chinese New Year in the East! January 25, 2020 marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat.

Although it did not originate in Japan, the Chinese zodiac, and the 12 animals that represent it, have been embraced by Japanese culture wholeheartedly.

During the time of both the New Year on January first and the Lunar Calendar New Year in Japan, you will find the year’s 'Japanese zodiac' animal on cards, decorations, and more!

Roots of the Chinese Zodiac

Roots of the Chinese Zodiac

When talking about the Chinese Zodiac, the majority of people will immediately think of the twelve animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. These “Twelve Signs” or “Earthly Branches,” however, are only one part of the entire Zodiac.

The other part are the “Ten Heavenly Stems” or “Celestial Stem,” an ancient Chinese system of ordinal numbers. Used in combination with the Earthly Branches, namely the twelve animals, they created a cycle of sixty days.

Specifically, 2020 is the Year of the Metal Rat. (Sounds like a cool band name!) The “metal” in this term comes from these very Celestial stems. The original purpose of this system was to determinate day, month, year, time, and even directions, similar to the English “o’clock.”

It is believed that the Celestial stem was invented around 4,000 years ago in China’s Yin Dynasty, while the Earthly Branches, the twelve animals, was established in China during the Han Dynasty. When this system was brought to Japan isn’t entirely clear but a prominent theory states that it must have been sometime before the Nara period.

From Sake Jar to Rooster?

From Sake Jar to Rooster?

Interestingly enough, these Earthly Branches weren’t always animals. The rat, for example, originally was depicted as a child, while the rooster was once a sake jug! This changed in China’s Han Dynasty, when these depictions were all changed to livestock to make it easier to remember for farmers who were more familiar with animals and ultimately dependent on this calendar – although there are various theories surrounding the reason for the change from a child to a rat and so on.

Of course, the Chinese Zodiac hasn’t only spread to Japan but all over Asia and various regional differences have developed over time. In Japan, for example, the Chinese Pig is a Boar, while Tibet replaced the original Rabbit with a Cat.

In Japan, everyone immediately knows the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar (or Pig).

The respective animal of the year often adorns New Year’s cards called nengajo and calendars, and a lot of families decorate their homes with references to the zodiac sign of the coming year.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Chinese Zodiac is an inherent part of Japanese day to day life and culture.

Quick Look at the Year of the Rat

Quick Look at the Year of the Rat

Did you know?
People born in a Rat year are said to have “a rat's virtues.” In terms of personality, they are said to be instinctive and alert in nature, which lends to their being excellent in business. They are sociable and sophisticated. And when facing adversarial circumstances, they will always react properly.

Also, 2020 specifically is the Year of the Metal Rat, meaning that people born this year are notably sensitive and have strong self-awareness, and are persuasive with their words.

On the flip side, it is said that those born in the Year of the Rat may be somewhat prone to inaction and should take extra care not to become overly procrastinatory in 2020.

What are the Rat years?
If you were born in years 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, or 2008, this is your year as well!

Celebrity Rats include Alyssa Milano, Avril Lavigne, Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, Eminem, John F. Kennedy, Jude Law, Katy Perry, Prince Harry, William Shakespeare, and Wolfgang Mozart.

Have a Happy “Year of the Rat!”

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
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