The Japanese Zodiac Explained

img_3849This year, 2020, is in the Japanese (extended) zodiac the year of 庚子 (kano-é-ne).  The Japanese zodiac was originally based off the Chinese Lunar calendar, though this changed in the late 19th century when Japan moved toward rapid Westernization and industrialization. However, the 12-animal zodiac, or jūnishi (十二支), is still an important part of the culture. In Japanese culture, like Chinese culture, the calendar is divided into a 12-animal cycle that rotates year after year. Even hours of the day were divided by these same animals, with the time starting at midnight, the hour of the rat, and noon being the hour of the horse.

The animals, their names and kanji are listed as follows:

Animal Zodiac Name Kanji
Rat Ne
Ox1 Ushi
Tiger Tora
Rabbit U
Dragon Tatsu
Snake Mi
Horse Uma
Goat/Sheep Hitsuji
Monkey Saru
Rooster Tori
Dog Inu
Boar Inoshishi

A few things to note:

  • Unlike the Chinese calendar, the “pig” has been replaced by a “boar”, which are common in the mountainous areas of Japan, even today.
  • The Kanji (chinese characters) for these animals are quite different than the ones in daily use. The regular Kanji for Dog is 犬 but in the zodiac it’s 戌.
  • Some of the animals also have different readings in the Zodiac than daily usage. Compare the snake, hebi in daily use, with mi in the zodiac.

However, what many Westerners (and Japanese) don’t know is that these 12 animals signs can be sub-divided further and further. Traditionally the 12 animals of the zodiac were also interwove with the five elements: earth, fire, water, air and metal. The cycle of the five elements is divided even further into a pair of “stems”, for a total of ten stems. The stems related to the notion of yin/yang, or inyō in Japanese (陰陽) with in (陰) being “yin”, and (陽) for “yang”. Often times these are referred to as big brother, or é (兄), and little brother, or to (弟), as well. Taken together, the five elements plus the yin and yang stems are called jikkan (十干) and are organized like so, with pronunciations added:

Element Yin/Yang Stem
Wood: 木 (ki) Yang (e) 甲 (ki no é)
Yin (to) 乙 (ki no to)
Fire: 火 (hi) Yang (e) 丙 (hi no é)
Yin (to) 丁 (hi no é)
Earth: 土 (tsuchi) Yang (e) 戊 (tsuchi no é)
Yin (to) 己 (tsuchi no to)
Metal: 金 (kane) Yang (e) 庚 (ka no é)
Yin (to) 辛 (ka no to)
Water: 水 (mizu) Yang (e) 壬 (mizu no é)
Yin (to) 癸 (mizu no é)

A few notes here as well:

  • The character on the right represents both the yin/yang and the element, so they’re not written separately as one would expect. One character is sufficient to express both.
  • All the stems are kanji that show up elsewhere in Japanese, but here they take on different meanings, readings.

So, how do you read this? If someone is born as the element wood, or “ki” and the yin stem, this is read as ki no to. If yang stem, then ki no é. That’s why I mentioned “e” and “to” above under yang and yin. The only exception to this rule is “metal” which sounds awkward if you say kane-no-e or kane-no-to, so it gets shortened to ka-no-e or ka-no-to.

Now, putting this altogether. If you consult the chart here, you can figure out for your birth year, what stem and animal is associated with it. So, for me, being born in late 1977, I am a “yin fire snake”, since “丁” is the yin stem for fire (see above). Thus, in Japanese, I could say I am hi-no-to-mi, or “fire yin snake”: 丁巳.

Going back to the beginning of this post, this year is kano-é-né (庚子) which really just means “yang metal mouse”.

While I don’t believe in the zodiac at all, it does come up in conversation a lot in Japan, so it’s a good subject to get familiar with. You will also see the same formula used in Japanese calendars, which the 10 stems and 12 animals cycling through the days as well. Also, people often like to ask what year you were born: nani doshi desu ka? For such questions, it’s enough to just say “(animal)-doshi“.

But as interesting as horoscopes are, I am reminded that the Buddha said in the opening lines of the Dhammapada (trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita):

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

Seems a lot more practical than horoscopes anyway, if you ask me. 🙂

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

1 Or, Water Buffalo or Bull depending on who’s doing the translation.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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