The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols imported to Japan from ancient China. Each animal represents a year in a twelve-year cycle that is based on Jupiter’s orbit—the planet takes nearly twelve earth years to circumnavigate the sun. These symbolic animals, still in use today, follow this cyclical order: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.
A Japanese zodiac animal came to be linked to specific character traits, which were thought to influence the personality of anyone born in its year. For instance, those born in the Year of the Rabbit, which was associated with creativity, might share its talents and ideas! In antiquity the dragon, leader of the zodiac animals, was often shown as masculine, while the snake was depicted with feminine qualities.
The zodiac animals are often depicted as poets engaged in a contest, with a deer accorded the honor of judging the various poems. A mischievous raccoon dog envies him and asks to be named judge of the next contest, but the zodiac animals laugh at the idea. Undeterred, he gathers an army of friends, including a fox, crow, owl, and weasel, and battles the zodiac animals, but is defeated time after time. Finally seeing the falseness of his ambition, he enters the Buddhist priesthood and seeks enlightenment.
Utagawa Yoshitora, Picture of the Twelve Animals to Protect the Safety of the Home, 1858, woodblock print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection. Photo © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The zodiac animals promise good luck, and images of them can serve as prayers for good harvests and prosperity. This print was meant to protect the home, with a sacred beast displaying characteristics of all twelve animals: the rat’s face, the ox’s horns, the rooster’s crest, the rabbit’s ears, the horse’s mane, the goat’s beard, the dog’s torso with the tiger’s skin, the monkey’s legs, the boar’s and snake’s tails, all enveloped in the flames of the dragon. Above this mythical creature, the animals are named in a rhyme that honors what lies at the heart of a good harvest: “the farmer who rises in the hour of the tiger, before dawn, and works in the fields through the hour of the horse, noon.”
During the Edo period (1603–1868) the zodiac animals were used to divide the day into twelve sections, such as the midnight rat or the noon horse. Even today, the Japanese term for midday is shōgo (literally, “proper horse”), and morning and afternoon are gozen (before the horse) and gogo (“after the horse”).