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Junishi: The Unknown Aspect of the Japanese Zodiac


Do you know about Junishi? In Japan, for a long time we have had Junishi, which is a zodiac calendar imported from China. The cycle of this calendar is completed every twelve years and each year is assigned a symbolic animal name: rat, bull, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. The sequence of zodiac animals always remains consistent. For example, 2015 is the year of the sheep, so 2016 will be the year of the monkey. This is a very traditional way to denote different years, and in present-day Japan we still make use of it in order to refer to years.

Junishi. Image by m-louis .®| Flickr. (The author made some changes.)

Everyone, not only Japanese people, has his or her own animal from Junishi. By this I mean, you can find your animal by looking up the animal corresponding to the year of your birth. In my case, I was born in 1995 and my zodiac animal is the boar. President Barack Obama was born in 1961, which means his zodiac animal is the bull. Therefore, in Japan, asking someone in what animal year they were born is a indirect way to ask their age.

In addition, until the Edo period(1603-1867), Junishi had been widely used to show direction and time. The rat is the north and the rabbit, horse and rooster indicate the east, the south and the west respectively. We also divided 360 degrees into 12 parts and we named them based on Junishi. Time is divided by splitting 24 hours into 12 parts and each two hours were also named using Junishi.

Junishi is not used only in Japan. It is used also in countries such as China, Korea, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, and Mongolia. However, the 12 animal signs are a little different among the countries. In Thailand, Vietnam and Tibet, they replace the rabbit and the boar with the cat and the pig respectively. In addition, they use the water buffalo and the goat as a substitute for the bull and the sheep in Vietnam. In Mongolia, the leopard serves as the tiger. Actually, it is natural to be different by region, because the twelve animal signs were appropriated after the zodiac was created in China.

In Japan, there are some superstitions related to Junishi. “Hinoeuma” is one of them. Hinoeuma is the name of a special zodiac year which comes once every 60 years. 1966 was the last Hinoeuma year. “Uma” of “Hinoeuma” means horse in Japanese, Hinoeuma is one in 5 years of the horse. According to legend, it is said that women who was born in the Hinoeuma year has a hot temper so that she can take years off her husband’s life. Therefore, there is a tendency to avoid giving birth to babies in this year. In the last Hinoeuma year of 1966, the birth rate in Japan decreased dramatically from 2.14 to 1.58.

In your country, is the zodiac used? If so, what kind of animals are used as the twelve animal signs? Are there any superstition? Junishi has various theories and stories in each country. In the modern age of rationality, it is interesting that zodiac signs still have cultural value.


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