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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The Year of the Ox: time in ancient Japan

Sylvain Jolivalt

Texte intégral

1March 2009

2On 29th January, the year of the Ox began. According to the traditional Chinese calendar, it should be a good year for farming. If one believes in tradition, nature should be merciful this year!

3This method of sharing time in combining elements and animals dates back to the Shang dynasty (from 1570 until 1045 BC). It is a sexagesimal system, associating the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches. The Ten Heavenly Stems are made up of five elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water – linked to the yang/masculine/positive and the yin/feminine/negative principles. Twelve animals that include Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig represent the Twelve Earthly Branches. These animals are the same in Korea. In Japan, however, the Pig is replaced by the Wild Boar and in Vietnam, the Ox, Rabbit and Sheep are replaced by the Water, Buffalo, Cat and Goat.

4When they were created, the signs of the Earthly Branches described different stages of plant life. They were replaced by animals to make it easier to memorise. Several versions of a tale are commonly told to explain the order of the animals. One version is as follows:

One day, the Jade Emperor, God of heaven, declared to all the animals that he would choose twelve of them to name the years. The first twelve to arrive at the meeting at his palace would each have the task of protecting mankind for a year. All the animals wanted to participate. Unfortunately the cat, being too excited, forgot the date. He asked the rat who was his friend at the time. However, the rat being very cunning, saw an opportunity to oust an enemy, and gave the cat the date of the following day. The day before the big day, the strong ox, knowing that he walked slowly, decided to leave early. The rat jumped onto the ox to take advantage of the ride. The ox thought that he would be the first to arrive, but just before crossing the doors of the heavenly palace, the rat jumped off the ox’s head and arrived before him. The spirited tiger, the king of the animals was the next to arrive, followed by the placid rabbit, the powerful dragon, the soft and intelligent snake, the dynamic horse, the peaceful ram, the clever monkey, the methodical rooster, the loyal and faithful dog and finally the stubborn pig. The next morning, the cat appeared at the gates of the heavenly palace, pleased that he would be the first to arrive. The guard sent him back home advising him to wake up earlier and wash his face. Since then, the cat and the rat have become irreconcilable enemies.

5The traditional Chinese calendar combines the solar and lunar calendar. In addition to being divided into twelve months, the year was also divided into twenty-four solar periods based on the solstice and equinox. Therefore in Japan, significant days of the year such as the setsubun (the eve of spring), higan (the period of seven days at equinox), nyûbai (the start of the rainy season), doyô (the warm period at the end of July) indicate changes in the seasons. Furthermore, there is the hachijûhachi-ya (the 88th day of spring, around three days before summer), and the nihyakutô-ka (the 210th day after the start of summer, marking the typhoon season), which differentiate its climate from China’s.

6This sexagesimal system applies to years, months, days and even hours. For example, at 6 p. m. on 1st March 2009, it is the hour of the Wood Rooster, day of the Wood Snake, month of the Fire Tiger and year of the Ox.

7Under normal circumstances, the hours and months follow a simpler duodecimal cycle. The sexagesimal system does not take into account the leap month that is added every two or three years to the lunar year in order to keep the calendar in line with the sun. In this case, the months are named only after their animal, and the leap month is named after the animal of the month that precedes it.

8On the other hand, a new cycle begins every sixty years, like every sixty days. Each animal is associated with an element of its own. Thus, each year is characterised by its animal, which itself, is linked to an intrinsic element, but also by its own element. Some years therefore depend on two different elements, while others combine the effects of the same element twice. The Horse, for example, is a Fire sign. The years when the Horse is combined with the Fire element are potentially linked to fire accidents. The combination of Branches and Stems, however, does not only predict natural conditions, it also determines horoscopes. Consequently, those born during the years of the Fire Horse (Hinoe-Uma) are said to be associated with the yang principle, and would tend to have male virtues and flaws. Women born in these years are said to be assertive. In Japan, it is even thought that their husbands would meet a premature death, unless it is the wives who are responsible for their deaths. Young Fire Horse women thus encounter many challenges in becoming married, to the dismay of their parents. It is even said that these women would become hinoenma after their death, female vampires, with divine beauty, seducing men in order to feast on their blood and vital energy better.

9When the system was created, it was decided that the month of the Rat would be the month of the winter solstice, the first of the solar year. On the other hand, traditionally, the first month of the civil year – the month of the Tiger – marks the beginning of spring. The sexagesimal system harmonises the dates of festivals and ceremonies placed under the sign of the animal that rules over a month, day or even both of them.

  • 1 The messenger animal of Inari is the fox. However, the horse, also used for working in the field, (...)

10In Japan, every month, the first day of the Tiger was dedicated to Bishamon, a divinity worshiped by the warriors, and the first day of the Horse was dedicated to Inari1, God of rice, as was the first day of the Wild Boar to Marishi-ten, Goddess of heavenly light.

11Even today, the Inoko-matsuri (the Young Wild Boar festival) takes place on the day of the Wild Boar of the tenth month (month of the Wild Boar), where the eradication of diseases and family prosperity are prayed for. On the same day, in the middle of the hour of the Boar (10 p. m.), Young Wild Boar’s mochi are served (glutinous rice cakes).

12Every twelve days, the day of the Dog is preferred for the obi-iwai (sash-tying ceremony). As dogs have many of pups, they symbolise painless births. Therefore, the day of the Dog in the fifth month of pregnancy, a sash is tied around the future mother’s midriff to ensure an easy delivery.

  • 2 Originally, Benten or Benzaiten was also the goddess of the streams. Her messenger animal is the s (...)

13Following the sexagesimal cycle, certain festivals were organised every sixty days. All the days of the Wood Rat, the Daikoku festival, God of happiness, whose messenger animal is the rat, are celebrated. Every day of the Earth Snake is the feast of Benten2, the Goddess of eloquence and music, and every day of the Metal Monkey, there is a feast commemorating Kôshin-sama, protector against diseases.

14Today, although our watches and clocks do not mention animals anymore, traces of this tradition can still be found. In Japanese, for example, the sign of the Horse is uma, but also go in its Sino-Japanese written form and the hour of the Horse is between 11 a. m. and p. m. In the current language, when the time is told, a. m. (gozen) or p. m. (gogo) can be specified. Gozen and gogo also happen to mean “before the Horse” and “after the Horse”. To a lesser extent, shôgo – “right Horse” – and shôshi – “right Rat” – for noon and midnight can also be seen.

15It is also thought that the hour of the Ox (from 1 a. m. to 3 a. m.) is the hour during which even plants sleep, and where ghosts and other strange nocturnal creatures come out to frighten humans. It is at this time that, when a person wants to magically take revenge against someone, he or she can ushi no koku mairi, “visit at the hour of the Ox”. It is a magical ritual that includes entering a churchyard several nights in a row with one’s head covered with three candles, and a mirror hung over the chest that would later be nailed onto tree trunks, straw or wood figurines representing the person to be cursed.

16If this hour of the Ox is dedicated to the spirits, it may be linked to the fact that the direction of the Ox and the Tiger is also called Kimon “the Gate of the Demons”. In geomancy, the Earthly Branches are also used to name the cardinal points. This direction, which corresponds to the north-east, represented by the signs of the Ox and Tiger, ushi-tora, is considered as being the origin of bad influences. This is the reason for which in the north-east of capitals, a temple was built to protect them, similar to the Enryaku-ji near Kyôto, or Kan’ei-ji in Edo (Tokyo). Moreover, the horns of the Ox and the loincloth made out of tiger skin are attributes of the terrifying oni (ogres or infernal jailors) in their traditional illustration.

17In Japan in the past, it was up to the onmyôji, the “yin yang masters” – astrologers, geomancers and exorcists – employed by the imperial court, to set the dates of different events or for work to be carried out. Likewise, it was their duty to determine, according to the day, from which direction a procession should come or the way in which rooms of a building had to be situated, etc.

18On the 3rd day of the 12th month of the 5th year of the Meiji era, Japan officially changed to the Gregorian calendar. This day has become 1st of January of the 6th year of the Meiji era (1873). Even after that, however, people have relentlessly continued to use the lunar calendar and the sexagesimal cycle. According to a survey conducted shortly after the end of World War II, in more than 60% of cities and villages, the traditional calendar was still greatly consulted. This was especially the case for fishing and farming villages for which the rhythm of the tides and agricultural seasons had more significance. The use of the Gregorian calendar was only increasingly used later on, with urban development.

19Naturally, the change from the lunar calendar to the solar calendar created some disorder in terms of the annual festivals. The Doll Festival, for instance, was adapted just as it was from the third day of the third lunar month to 3rd March of the Gregorian calendar. In some cities, however, it was celebrated a month later, in April, which corresponds more closely to the third lunar month.

20Thus, even after adopting the solar calendar, superstitions linked with the Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches that appeared in the traditional Chinese calendar can still be seen today, in addition to Western astrology.


1 The messenger animal of Inari is the fox. However, the horse, also used for working in the field, represents the divinity of rice for this feast.

2 Originally, Benten or Benzaiten was also the goddess of the streams. Her messenger animal is the snake. She is found represented with ten arms and three snake heads.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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