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Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008


Tally your tanuki skins well in the Year of the Ox

The year 2009 will be an ushi-doshi (丑年) — year of the ox. The ox is one of 12 hoary characters referred to as jūni-shi (十二支, 12 branches) making up the Asian Zodiac, whose creation is credited to China's legendary Yellow Emperor in 2697 B.C.

The Year of the Ox is second in the zodiac, after nezumi-doshi (子年), the Year of the Rat that's just ending, and before tora-doshi (寅年), the Year of the Tiger.

Keeping track of the years, however, is a bit more complicated than rounding up a dozen animals, since years are also marked by two pairs of five stems, called jikkan (十干, the 10 stems), which represent five elements: fire, water, wood, metal and earth.

So 2009's proper astrological designation is tsuchi-no-to-ushi (己丑, earth ox). It takes 60 years to complete each cycle of 12 characters and five stems, so the previous earth ox year was 1949, and those born that year will celebrate kanreki (還暦, a 60th anniversary) — meaning they have returned to the starting point of the cycle and can begin a second round.

Many Asians believe that people take on some of the attributes of the animal year in which they are born, i.e., those born in the year of the ox are quiet and patient, dog-year people are friendly, monkey-year people are clever and entrepreneurial, and so on.

In at least one situation that I know of, hundreds of thousands of couples took this custom seriously enough to postpone producing new offspring. It seems that once every 60 years, a hi-no-e-uma (丙午, fire-horse) year recurs. According to an old superstition, females born in such a year will be jinxed. In 1966, the previous hi-no-e-uma year, certain couples weren't taking any chances on producing "unlucky" daughters, and Japan's birth rate plummeted from 1.82 million in 1965 to 1.36 million in 1966.

Horoscopes and superstitions aside, there's little doubt that Japanese feel great affinity for animals. A recent government survey found that more than one in three Japanese households, or 36.6 percent, keep pets, with dogs being by far the most popular.

When animals come up in conversation, some specialized vocabulary is required. The generic word for animal is dōbutsu (動物), written with characters meaning "moving thing."

As opposed to yasei dōbutsu (野生動物, wild animals), the term for a domesticated animal is kachiku (家畜, house beast). A third term, (獣, beast), is used in such words as mōjū (猛獣, ferocious beast), kaijū (怪獣, fierce monster) and jūi (獣医, beast physician — meaning veterinarian).

One does not own or keep a pet but feeds (飼う, kau) it. So if someone wanted to know if you own a dog, for example, you would be asked, "Inu wo katteimasu ka (犬を飼っていますか, do you feed a dog)?" If you do, this makes you the dog's kainushi (飼い主, feed master).

You might occasionally notice a sign or sticker posted on a house with the character for inu (犬, dog) in a circle or with the warning "Mōken ni chūi (猛犬に注意, beware of vicious dog)." (猛) means ferocious or fierce. It is also used with such words as mōjū (猛獣, vicious beast), mōgyū (猛牛, wild bull) and mōko (猛虎, fierce tiger) — the later often appearing in the headlines of Osaka's sports dailies when the Hanshin Tigers baseball team is on a winning streak.

Animals appear in many figurative expressions and aphorisms in Japanese. For example, inujini (犬死に, dog death) refers to a wasted sacrifice or to spill blood for a meaningless cause. If you find a situation where you're so swamped with work you would even let a cat pitch in, you might say "Neko no te mo kariru? (猫の手も借りる, Even get the cat to lend a paw)." Another expression involving cats that I like is "Neko ni katsuobushi no ban wo saseru (猫に鰹節の番をさせる, Leave the cat to guard the dried bonito)," which is equivalent to inviting the fox to guard the henhouse.

Another commonly heard aphorism is "toranu tanuki no kawa zanyo (捕らぬ狸の皮算用, counting raccoon-dog skins before they're caught)," i.e., counting your chickens before they're hatched.

If you think I've been showing off here, you might consider admonishing me by saying, "Nō aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu (能ある鷹は爪を隠す, The clever hawk conceals its talons)." But that advice would probably fly right over my head, as I would smugly reply, "Datte, boku wa tori-naki sato no kōmori desu (だって、僕は鳥なき里のこうもりです, But I'm just a bat in a village without birds)" — in this context meaning, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

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