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Year Of The Rat 2020 - The 12 Animals Of The Zodiac In Japan

year of the rat

Translated by Verity Lane

Written by MATCHA

2020.01.01 Bookmark

The Chinese zodiac calendar was introduced in Japan around the fourth century. There are twelve animal signs used as symbols for each year, and 2020 is the year of the rat. This system is called "eto" or "junishi" in Japanese. Read more to learn about the eto in Japan.

2020 is the Year of the Rat! About the Zodiac System in Japan

japanese zodiac

The Chinese animal zodiac (eto) was introduced in Japan around the third to the fourth century. It was mainly employed as a way of indicating the day, month, year, time of the day, orientation in space, as well as the order in a sequence of events in a symbolical form.

As there are twelve animals in the zodiac, it is also referred to as juni-shi ("the twelve branches", with juni meaning "twelve" in Japanese), as the cycle rotates every twelve years. The animal of the year changes on January first.

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Picture from 3 Recommended Routes to Take in Ueno Zoo

子 (Ne): Rat
丑 (Ushi): Ox
寅 (Tora): Tiger
卯 (U): Rabbit
辰 (Tatsu): Dragon
巳 (Mi): Snake
午 (Uma): Horse
未 (Hitsuji): Sheep
申 (Saru): Monkey
酉 (Tori): Rooster
戌 (Inu): Dog
亥 (Inoshishi): Wild Boar

Finding the Twelve Zodiac Signs at a Shrine

At Japanese shrines, you will often see a lot of objects related to the twelve animals of the zodiac. For example, at Hakuto Shrine (Tottori Prefecture) you'll find the rabbit, while Gou Shrine (Kyoto) is dedicated to the sign of the wild boar.

These zodiac symbols are often found around shrines throughout Japan, so be sure to look when visiting. If you research the myths and legends regarding the connection between eto and the shrines you will get a sense of just how long their history really is.

Picture from Try an Omikuji (Paper Fortune) at Sensoji (Asakusa)

During Hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year), many people purchase omikuji (a paper fortune). Though many kinds of omikuji exist, the eto-mikuji, which means drawing out the fortune-telling paper for the year you were born in, is one of the most popular.

The paper eto oracles found at Shimogamo Shrine and the Toyokuni Shrine in Kyoto, are placed inside a small ceramic animal-shaped object. After you've had fun reading them, you can look forward to taking this cute item home and placing it in your room. They are of course wonderful souvenirs.

The Twelve Animals of the Zodiac and the New Year

You will encounter objects reminding of the Twelve Animals of the Zodiac especially around the New Year, especially when it comes to writing New Years' greeting cards (nengajo). The Twelve Animal Signs of the Oriental Calendar are incorporated into the New Year postcards and stamps, so it's something that everybody naturally becomes aware of during this time of the year.

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Picture from 3 Recommended Routes to Take in Ueno Zoo

During the New Year season, women and men who were born in the same year as the current juni-shi are called "toshi-otoko" (men), and "toshi-onna" (women). The word "toshi" means year, and "otoko" and "onna" mean "man" and "woman" respectively. It marks a critical turning point in their lives and it feels a little bit special.

2019 was the Year of the Boar, which is why pictures of pigs were everywhere in Japan around the New Year. 2020 is the Year of the Rat ("nezumi-doshi" in Japanese), so any cards and talismans with illustrations of mice (nezumi) and hedgehogs (harinezumi) are considered auspicious this year.

The Japanese are not always consciously aware of the zodiac signs. However, it is something that remains rooted in everyday life.

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