There are an increasing number of Japanese who are aware of their zodiac sign in the astrological system we use in the West; Scorpio, Cancer, Taurus, etc, but the chances are that if you ask a Japanese "What's your sign?", the answer you get will be "I'm a rat", or "I'm a horse". What they are referring to is the 12 year cycle of animal years, known in Japan as junishi.
Like many aspects of Japanese culture, the junishi was introduced from China about 1200 to 1300 years ago, though some suggest that it originated with Empress Suiko in 604, but this is not a widely held belief. This current year, 2007, is the Year of the Pig or Wild boar and many homes and businesses are displaying a small model of a pig for good luck, also images of pigs were widely used on this year's New Year's cards. As with the western system, many believe that a person's sign is an indicator of their personality or character and will use the system to judge compatibility for love-matches and to tell fortunes. Interestingly, some women will not tell you their sign as it will enable you to calculate their true age. Here is a brief synopsis of the characteristics for each sign with their corresponding years.
Goat, or Sheep, or Ram
2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919, 1907
Charming, elegant and artistic but quick to complain. Tendency to be pessimistic at times.
2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918, 1906
Independent and a hard worker. Although friendly, may have a tendency to be selfish. Must guard against being egotistical
Snake, or Serpent
2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929, 1917, 1905
Wise, charming and romantic. A deep thinker and intuitive. Needs effort to keep a sense of humor and not to be overly tight with money
2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928, 1916 1904
Intelligent, gifted and full of vitality. A perfectionist who must guard against making unduly demands.
Hare, or Rabbit
1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927, 1915, 1903
Affectionate, obliging, pleasant. Tendency to be overly sentimental. A conservative.
1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926, 1914, 1902
Sensitive, emotional and capable of great love. Despite this, a tendency to be hotheaded and stubborn.
Ox, or Cow
1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925, 1913, 1901
A leader and inspirer of confidence. Conservative and methodical. Tendency to chauvinism and having one's own way.
Rat, or Mouse
1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924, 1912, 1900
Imaginative, charming and generous to loved ones. Tendency to quick temper and being overly critical. Somewhat an opportunists.
Boar, or Pig
1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923, 1911
Intellectual and sets difficult goals. Sincere and honest and expects same. Somewhat naive. Tendency towards materialism.
1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922, 1910
Honest and faithful to loved ones. Tendency to worry and find fault.
Cock, or Chicken
1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921, 1909
Hard worker and shrewd. Tendency to seem boastful. A dreamer, flashy dresser and extravagant.
1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920, 1908
Must guard against being an opportunist and being distrustful of people.
Related to junishi is jikkan, another system imported from China. The jikkan is based on the 5 elements or energies that constitute the world. In the west we have the 4 alchemical elements.... Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. The Sino-Japanese system uses five: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood.
In this system Fire generates Earth, which generates Metal, which generates Water, which generates Wood, which generates Fire. The 5 elements system is used extensively in a variety of health, design, time, and spatial systems.
The jikkan is derived by each element having a "younger" and "elder" aspect. This gives us the "10 trunks" (jikkan), which combined with "12 animal years" (junishi) creates a 60 year cycle wherein each year is a unique combination of animal and element. ( it's a little complicated as some animals are only associated with the "younger" element, and some animals only with the "elder" element). The jikkan-junishi system was known as ETO, and was used as a dating system and for fortune telling . The current 60-year cycle began in 1984, so this is year 20, "younger"-water Sheep year. While no longer in extensive use, Eto makes an appearance as the Japanese set great store in a person's 60th birthday. It is seen as the ending of one life-cycle and the beginning of a second.
Finally, there is the uniquely Japanese system of believing that a person's blood-type determines character. While there has never been any scientific evidence to support this claim, it is a surprisingly pervasive belief among Japanese, and the chances are that you are more likely to be asked your blood type than your sign. The idea of blood type determining character was first put forward in 1927 by Takeji Furukawa. The idea was popular for some years, but faded from public consciousness upon his death until revived again in the 1970's by journalist Masahiko Nomi who has since published over 16 books on the subject. Add to this several dozen books by other authors and a slew of TV programs, and you get an idea how much the idea has gripped the Japanese public. Several of these books have been translated into English, and a few books have been written by western authors, mostly in the area of New Age studies. Here some of the characteristics attributed to each blood type:
calm, composed, serious, reliable, perfectionist, arrogant, suppress their emotions.
curious, bright, cheerful, enthusiastic, superficial, unreliable, selfish.
carefree, generous, independent, flexible, clumsy, flighty.
sensitive, considerate, careful, efficient, strict, moody
The most common blood type in Japan is A, with 38% of the population. The most common in Britain and the U.S. is Type O. Interestingly the most common type among Japanese Prime Ministers is O.
Blood-typing is used to determine compatibility for marriage and romance, and also for career paths, since it is believed that type A make the best managers. In 1930 companies started asking for blood-type on application forms, a practice that is still sometimes used today. As with any system that categorizes people into types, some blood groups are seen as inferior. For a while, some companies tried dividing their employees into work groups based on blood type, and no one wanted to work with the AB group. Almost all Japanese know their blood group, and if a foreigner is asked and doesn't know his or her group, it will likely be believed that they really do know it but are ashamed of it.