Translated by Verity Lane
Eto - The Twelve Animals Of The Zodiac In Japan
In the ancient Chinese calendar which was introduced in Japan around the 4th century AD, there are twelve animal signs used as symbols for each year. They are called "eto" or "junishi" in Japanese. Find out more about their significance!
Written by MATCHA
Eto refers to the ancient Chinese zodiac that was introduced in Japan around the third to fourth century. It was mainly employed as a way of indicating the day/month/year, 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 order is written below.
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 found dotted around the shrines and are definitely one of their highlights. 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.
At Hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year), many people purchase omikuji (a written oracle) that tells their 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 (both 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 (nengajō). 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.
In the new year, women and men who were born in the same year as the current juni-shi are called toshi-otoko for men, and toshi-onna for 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.
For example, 2015 was the Year of the Sheep, so men and women the ages of 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, 96, 108, 120, were toshi-otoko and toshi-onna.
2017 was the Year of the Rooster, which is why pictures of roosters were everywhere in Japan around the New Year. 2018 is the Year of the Dog, so there are cute cards, posters and statues of dogs in shops all across the country this year.
Japanese people are not always consciously aware of the zodiac signs, however, it is still something that remains rooted in their everyday lives, even today.