Zodiac Signs in Japanese: The 12 Animals and Their Characteristics
Did you know that the word “zodiac,” in its original etymology, translates to “circle of little animals?”
If you know some Japanese culture and language, you may have already heard of 干支 (えと), the 12-animal zodiac.
In the original myth, a supreme Chinese god hosted a race for animals, and the top 12 winners became the zodiac. In finishing order, they were: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar.
This zodiac is prevalent in many 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 zodiac signs in Japanese, and their significance—and learn some Japanese while we’re at it!
- 1. Rat: 子 (ね)
- 2. Ox: 丑 (うし)
- 3. Tiger: 寅 (とら)
- 4. Rabbit: 卯 (う)
- 5. Dragon: 辰 (たつ)
- 6. Snake: 巳 (み)
- 7. Horse: 午 (うま)
- 8. Sheep: 未 (ひつじ)
- 9. Monkey: 申 (さる)
- 10. Rooster: 酉 (とり)
- 11. Dog: 戌 (いぬ)
- 12. Boar: 亥 (い)
- What Is the Japanese Zodiac?
- Why Learn the Japanese Zodiac?
1. Rat: 子 (ね)
Animal kanji: 鼠 (ねずみ)
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 hitched a ride on the Ox and leapt over the finish line to become the first winner.
The Rat embodies luck and success, and so a Rat year is said to be one for fresh starts. While a Rat person can be extremely capable and intelligent, they may also be hard to read and have a miserly streak.
2. Ox: 丑 (うし)
Animal kanji: 牛 (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 power of 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: 寅 (とら)
Animal kanji: 虎 (とら)
Positive attributes: brave, confident, passionate
Negative attributes: temperamental, impulsive
The ferocious Tiger is a highly-revered animal in East Asian culture, often depicted as a creature rivaling or just secondary to the mighty Dragon.
A Tiger person is one that will get things done with vigor and wit. They’re obvious in their care for others, and so have great potential as leaders. However, they can be prone to an “up-and-down,” unpredictable personality that can lead to some pitfalls.
4. Rabbit: 卯 (う)
Animal kanji: 兎 (うさぎ)
Positive attributes: elegant, talented, tactful
Negative attributes: gullible, bendable will
The Rabbit has long been popular as an animal of character, and its zodiac form marks those of the birth year as admirable and progress-driven people.
You could certainly trust a Rabbit person to carry out a task with poise. Unfortunately, however, if they don’t practice awareness, that same individual may be easily deceived or find themselves controlled by others’ whims.
5. Dragon: 辰 (たつ)
Animal kanji: 竜 (りゅう)
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 why wasn’t it first in the zodiac race? According to the story, the Dragon was delayed because it compassionately helped out some folks in need along its journey.
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 moods and decisions.
6. Snake: 巳 (み)
Animal kanji: 蛇 (へび)
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, as well as particularly suave with money matters. But the Snake can also seem like a cold individual—a trait not helped by an occasional disinclination to share their opinions.
7. Horse: 午 (うま)
Animal kanji: 馬 (うま)
Positive attributes: sociable, charming, determined
Negative attributes: impatient, inconsiderate
Much like their animal namesake, a Horse person is spirited and 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: 未 (ひつじ)
Animal kanji: 羊 (ひつじ)
Positive attributes: creative, kind, considerate, passionate
Negative attributes: indecisive, overly meek
Interestingly, the Japanese zodiac often proclaims that the Sheep is least compatible with the Ox, despite their animal counterparts sharing the role of four-legged agricultural livestock.
Like the animal, the zodiac Sheep is said to be peace-loving and group-focused, as well as quite artistically gifted. But 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.
9. Monkey: 申 (さる)
Animal kanji: 猿 (さる)
Positive attributes: clever, versatile, resourceful
Negative attributes: manipulative, short-sighted
East Asian cultures have a special reverence for monkeys. They’re often considered smart and smooth, as fast in motion as they are in thought. A Monkey is particularly compatible with other clever members of the zodiac, including the Rat and Snake.
The zodiac Monkey is also said to be very clever and erratic. They are one of the most likely of the 12 zodiac animals to get out of a pinch as needed. However, the Monkey can be arrogant, and doesn’t always consider the consequences of their actions.
10. Rooster: 酉 (とり)
Animal kanji: 鶏 (にわとり)
Positive attributes: diligent, devoted, independent
Negative attributes: overambitious, aggressive
The Japanese word for rooster is technically 雄鶏 (おんどり), but the zodiac form may simply use chicken: 鶏 (にわとり). More frequently, the Japanese zodiac refers to the rooster as 酉 (とり), which sounds like a reference to an unspecified bird.
A Rooster individual enjoys being busy, takes pride in their efforts and doesn’t back down from challenges or speaking their mind. They may get a bit too confident or ambitious, however, which can leave them crushingly disappointed if they fail to achieve their goal.
11. Dog: 戌 (いぬ)
Animal kanji: 犬 (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 this trait. The Dog is often said to be the most faithful and dutiful of the zodiac members.
A Dog individual may be cautious in forming relationships, but once a bond is made it will be cherished. The Dog may struggle with giving or taking criticism, and their occasional obstinacy can make them difficult to deal with at times.
12. Boar: 亥 (い)
Animal kanji: 猪 (いのしし)
Positive attributes: self-empowered, honest, humble
Negative attributes: short-tempered, naïve
Some variations of the zodiac myth say the Boar was last due to the creature’s inherent laziness. Others say it was due to overcompensation—in one version, the Boar literally ran past the overseeing god and had to circle back.
A Boar person carries admirable inner strength, vitality and honesty, all qualities that make for good, sincere companions. They can be quick to anger and unmoved in their judgments, though, particularly if you find yourself on their bad side.
What Is the Japanese Zodiac?
The Japanese zodiac originated from China, where the zodiac was a part of traditional Chinese astrology. Originally, it functioned in part as a time-keeping system, with a number of other complex uses.
The 12 animals of the ancient zodiac were also called the “12 Earthly Branches.” These were matched with the “10 Heavenly Stems”—the five natural elements of Earth, Wood, Water, Fire and Metal in both their yin and yang forces. Together, the Earthly Branches and the Heavenly Stems created a functional calendar.
The Japanese zodiac differs from the original Chinese one in a few notable ways:
- The Boar replaced the Pig.
- The Sheep replaced the Goat (or Ram).
- The solar (Gregorian) calendar replaced the original lunar calendar used in traditional Chinese time-keeping.
An important note: The 12-animal zodiac is indeed its own form of astrology that differs from Western astrology. With a calendar or calculator, you can easily find out your Japanese zodiac sign.
Why Learn the Japanese Zodiac?
Of course, learning the zodiac signs is a fun way to learn a few Japanese words for animals. But there’s a bit more value to be gained:
- The zodiac finds a home with the plethora of superstitions present in Japanese culture. The year 1966 saw a staggering decline in Japan’s childbirth rate due to the “curse” of 丙午 (ひのえうま), the “fire horse.”
- The zodiac remains a way of predicting one’s fate as a form of Japanese fortune-telling.
- Notable zodiac-related ceremonies are still practiced today. The 還暦 (かんれき) ceremony is held when one reaches 60 years of age, as that marks the end of one zodiac cycle and the beginning a “new cycle” in that individual’s life.
- The Japanese zodiac remains culturally prevalent. Some shrines in Japan are dedicated to a specific zodiac animal. Visitors can write wishes on prayer boards called 絵馬 (えま), which often depict the animal of significance. You’ll also find mentions of the zodiac in TV shows, movies and in other native Japanese videos like the kind you’ll find on FluentU (where you’ll also find plenty of other vocabulary and cultural tidbits).
- Many Japanese people pay special attention to the zodiac around New Year’s. If you travel to Japan around the end of the year, you’ll see an abundance of items depicting the next year’s animal.
So, how much do you resonate with your zodiac animal?
Keep the Japanese zodiac in mind around New Year’s, too, to see what’s in store for the next year!
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