Did you know that the word “zodiac,” in its original etymology, translates to “circle of little animals?”
It’s a cute image to imagine, but what’s the real deal with all that zodiac business around the end of the year?
If you know some Japanese culture and language, you may have already heard of 干支 (えと), the 12-animal zodiac.
This zodiac is actually prevalent in many other East Asian cultures, and it’s often common knowledge to know one’s animal sign and the current “animal year.”
So let’s talk about the Japanese “circle of little animals” and their significance—and learn some Japanese while we’re at it!
What Are the Japanese Zodiac Signs?
There are 12 animals in the Japanese zodiac. Collectively called the 十二支 (じゅうにし), which literally translates to “12 branches,” the animals are listed in a specific order:
The order is explained in the original zodiac myth: A supreme god, known as the Jade Emperor, hosted a race for animals that would permit the first 12 winners to become part of the zodiac. The animals and the rank they achieved are evident in the zodiac’s presentation.
Each animal embodies traits that could reflect one’s character and fortune if they’re born in that animal’s year. For a year to be of a certain animal may indicate specific good or bad tidings.
Where Does the Japanese Zodiac Come From?
The Japanese zodiac actually originated from China, whose massive influence a long time ago is still reflected in many East Asian countries today. The zodiac was a part of traditional Chinese astrology, and its original purpose included being a time-keeping system. Its functions were quite complex, so if you’re interested in learning more while getting in additional practice for your Japanese studies, here’s a video that explains the Chinese zodiac in-depth!
In actuality, the zodiac includes more than just the animals. Together, the animals were also called the “12 Earthly Branches.” They’re matched with the “10 Heavenly Stems,” another number set explained by the five natural elements of Earth, Wood, Water, Fire and Metal and their respective alternating yin or yang forces. Together, the Earthly Branches and the Heavenly Stems created a functional calendar.
While much is retained from the original Chinese version, the Japanese zodiac does differ in a few ways:
- The Chinese zodiac’s Pig is replaced by the Boar
- The Chinese zodiac’s Goat (or Ram) is more firmly defined as a Sheep
- The original lunar calendar used in traditional Chinese time-keeping and the zodiac system was later abandoned in the Japanese version for the solar (Gregorian) calendar
An important note: While often compared to one other, the 12-animal zodiac is indeed its own form of astrology that differs from Western astrology. One of the more obvious differences is that animal signs are assigned by your birth year, not birth month. With a calendar or calculator, you can easily find out your zodiac sign. If you’re still curious and eager to study more, check out this video that discusses astrological signs and adds some additional kick to what you’re learning here!
Why Learn the Japanese Zodiac?
Of course, learning the zodiac signs is definitely a fun way to learn a few Japanese words for animals. But there’s a bit more value to be sought.
Nowadays, you’d see the zodiac as one form of Japanese fortune-telling, or even as a personality test. Though the readings may not always be taken seriously, at times the zodiac remains a way of predicting one’s fate. It finds a home within the vast plethora of superstitions present in Japanese culture.
There were, in fact, incidents in which belief in the zodiac created a noticeable social effect. For example, the year of 1966 was one that housed the “curse” of 丙午 (ひのえうま), the “fire horse.” Allegedly, those born in that year (particularly women) were prophesied to become incredibly “strong-willed” or dangerous individuals. The fear was so strong that 1966 saw a staggering decline in Japan’s childbirth rate.
Notable zodiac-related ceremonies are also still practiced. In the ceremony known as 還暦 (かんれき) one who becomes 60 years old is given a special celebration. That’s because 60 years in the zodiac marks the completion of one cycle, and the individual “returns” to the same zodiac readings as when they were born, thus beginning a “new cycle” in their lives.
Some shrines in Japan are dedicated to a specific zodiac animal, and visitors can write their wishes on 絵馬 (えま), prayer boards that’ll likely depict the animal of significance. New Year’s is a time when most become aware of the upcoming year’s animal. If you ever travel to Japan around the end of the year, you’ll see an abundance of items depicting next year’s animal—items include seasonal greetings cards called 年賀状 (ねんがじょう) and special fortune slips known as 御神籤 (おみくじ), which are customized for zodiac predictions.
The zodiac remains culturally prevalent, another fun tidbit of the intriguing world of Japanese society.
The Zodiac Signs in Japanese: Discover the Animal Within!
Note that the zodiac does use a different kanji (sometimes with a different pronunciation) than the norm for each animal. Such kanji implies a reference to the animal within the zodiac as opposed to referring to the animal species.
1. Rat: 鼠 (ねずみ)
Zodiac kanji: 子 (ね)
Positive attributes: outgoing, energetic, resourceful
Negative attributes: rude, greedy
As number one in the zodiac, the Rat has some outstanding qualities. As the myth goes, the clever Rat completely skirted spending energy in the race by hitching a ride on the Ox, leaping over the finish line to become the first winner. The Rat is one to embody luck and success, and so a Rat year is said to be one for fresh starts. While a Rat person can be an extremely capable and intelligent individual, he or she can also be hard to read and have a miserly streak.
2. Ox: 牛 (うし)
Zodiac kanji: 丑 (うし)
Positive attributes: hardworking, earnest, trustworthy
Negative attributes: narrow-minded, constrained
With its heavily agrarian history, Asian culture naturally finds significance in the ever-useful Ox, and its zodiac depiction reasonably embodies some great traits. The Ox spurns laziness and understands the strength in combining patience with hard work. However, Ox people are quite stubborn and want to remain on the path they’ve chosen, and so it may be hard to persuade them from their views.
3. Tiger: 虎 (とら)
Zodiac kanji: 寅 (とら)
Positive attributes: brave, confident, passionate
Negative attributes: temperamental, impulsive
The ferocious tiger is also a highly-revered animal in East Asian culture, often depicted as a creature secondary to or rivaling the mighty dragon. A Tiger person is one you can count on to get things done with vigor and wit. They’re also obvious in their care for others, making them great potential leaders. However, like the real tiger, they can be prone to having an “up-and-down,” unpredictable personality that can lead to some pitfalls.
4. Rabbit: 兎 (うさぎ)
Zodiac kanji: 卯 (う)
Positive attributes: elegant, talented, tactful
Negative attributes: gullible, bendable will
Rabbits have long been popular as animals of character, and their zodiac form marks those of the birth year as quite admirable and progress-driven people. You could certainly trust a Rabbit person to carry out a task with poise. Unfortunately, without practicing their sense of awareness, that same individual may be easily deceived or find themselves controlled by others’ whims.
5. Dragon: 竜 (りゅう)
Zodiac kanji: 辰 (たつ)
Positive attributes: steadfast, noble, brave
Negative attributes: short-tempered, uncontrollable
The dragon is an incredibly important creature in Asian mythos that embodies otherworldly grace and strength—so how did it not nab first place in the zodiac race? According to the story, the Dragon was delayed because it compassionately helped out some folks in need along its journey. Even though it’s not the first in the zodiac, the Dragon certainly is a special creature. A Dragon person is likely to be charismatic, unique and inspiring in their unwavering nature. However, as is typical of the giant lizards of lore, they’re prone to losing control of their mood or decisions.
6. Snake: 蛇 (へび)
Zodiac kanji: 巳 (み)
Positive attributes: observant, wise, persistent
Negative attributes: indifferent, negatively introverted
While Western culture often gives snakes a bad rap, Japanese lore illustrates a fascination with these sleek creatures and their quiet mannerisms. In the myth, the Snake realized its physical shortcomings and hitched a ride on the Horse, remaining unseen until the finish line. Snake individuals are said to be intelligent and thoughtful, with their general wisdom being quite pronounced in money matters. But the Snake can also seem like a cold individual, which is supplemented by their occasional disinclination to share their opinions.
7. Horse: 馬 (うま)
Zodiac kanji: 午 (うま)
Positive attributes: sociable, charming, determined
Negative attributes: impatient, inconsiderate
Much like their animal namesake, a Horse person is spirited and one who loves to be on the move, whether on a personal project or a new social trend. They ooze a charisma that easily gains them admiration. On the flip side, the Horse can get bored easily and become quickly demotivated when things don’t pan out their way. Their sociable nature can also be interpreted as intrusiveness at times.
8. Sheep: 羊 (ひつじ)
Zodiac kanji: 未 (ひつじ)
Positive attributes: creative, kind, considerate, passionate
Negative attributes: indecisive, overly meek
Like the animal, the zodiac Sheep is said to be peace-loving and group-focused. Besides their friendly demeanor, the Sheep is also said to be quite artistically gifted. Their gentle personalities may come to a fault—while obedience is a wanted trait in the actual animal, it can be a detriment to the zodiac Sheep who may be overly uncertain about themselves. Amusingly, the Japanese zodiac often proclaims that the Sheep is least compatible with the Ox, despite their animal counterparts sharing prominence in their roles as four-legged agricultural livestock.
9. Monkey: 猿 (さる)
Zodiac kanji: 申 (さる)
Positive attributes: clever, versatile, resourceful
Negative attributes: manipulative, short-sighted
East Asian cultures have a special reverence for monkeys. They’re often interpreted as smart and smooth, fast in motion as they are in thought. The zodiac Monkey is also said to be very clever and erratic, one of the most likely of the 12 zodiac animals to get themselves out of a pinch as needed. However, the Monkey can be conceited and not think of consequences that arise from their actions. They understandably are compatible with other notably clever members of the zodiac, including the Rat and Snake.
10. Rooster: 鶏 (にわとり)
Zodiac kanji: 酉 (とり)
Positive attributes: diligent, devoted, independent
Negative attributes: overambitious, aggressive
The specific Japanese word for rooster is technically 雄鶏 (おんどり), but within the zodiac, it’s common to use the word generally meaning chicken: 鶏 (にわとり). More frequently, the Japanese zodiac simply refers to the rooster with 酉 (とり), which, when said aloud, can make you think someone is referring to an unspecified bird.
A person of the Rooster zodiac finds enjoyment in being busy and might go out of their way to find work to do. They take pride in their efforts and don’t back down from challenges or speaking their mind (as a real rooster would). They may tend to get a bit too confident or ambitious, which can leave them crushingly disappointed when they fail to achieve their goal.
11. Dog: 犬 (いぬ)
Zodiac kanji: 戌 (いぬ)
Positive attributes: loyal, honest, down-to-earth
Negative attributes: stubborn, overly critical
Loyalty is the hallmark trait of man’s best friend, and the zodiac Dog shares that trait. They’re often said to be the most faithful and dutiful of the zodiac members. They may be cautious in forming relationships, but once a bond is made it’ll be cherished. The honesty of a Dog can come to a fault when it comes to giving or taking criticism, and their occasional obstinacy can make them difficult to deal with.
12. Boar: 猪 (いのしし)
Zodiac kanji: 亥 (い)
Positive attributes: self-empowered, honest, humble
Negative attributes: short-tempered, naive
While some variations of the race myth say the Boar was last due to laziness expected of the creature, others say it was due to overcompensation (for example, the Boar literally ran past the Jade Emperor and had to circle back). Regardless, the zodiac Boar is much more than its stereotypes. The Boar carries admirable inner strength, vitality and honesty, qualities that make for good, sincere companions. Just make sure you don’t get on the Boar’s bad side, as they can be quite easy to anger and be unmoved in their judgment calls.
So, how much do you resonate with your zodiac animal? Remember, just because you’re born in the year of a certain animal doesn’t mean it’s a 100% accurate reflection of your true character!
Besides being aware of your birth year’s critter, keep the zodiac in mind around New Year’s —you’ll be all set to know what animal is to come roaring in next year!