Say “cock-a-doodle-do” to the New Year! January 28, 2017 marks the beginning of the Year of the Rooster. 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 zodiac animal on cards, decorations, and more!
The 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. The “fire” in “Fire Rooster” 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?
Interestingly enough, these Earthly Branches weren’t always animals. The rat, for example, originally was depicted as a child, and 2017’s 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. 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.
Did you know? The character for “rooster” is actually read as “bird” in Japanese, but refers to “chicken” or “rooster.” People born in a rooster year are said to have “a chicken’s virtues:” intelligence by wearing a crown or comb on your head, valor by having claws on your feet, bravery by being bold before an enemy, virtue by sharing your food, and devotion by guarding the night and correctly announcing the time of day. Celebrity roosters include Aung San Suu Kyi, the Leader of the National League for Democracy of Myanmar, the famous author Osamu Dazai, and the actress Sayuri Yoshinaga.
Have a Happy “Year of the Rooster!”
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