by Dave Lowry
Anyone who has read the placemats in a Chinese restaurant knows about what might be called the “Asian zodiac.” As they wait for their General Tso’s Chicken, they have scan the placemats and learn they were born in the Year of the Dog or Snake or Dragon. But the lunar calendar on which that zodiac is based is a lot more involved than what one learns from a restaurant placemat.
In Japan, the lunar calendar and its associated method of reckoning years was in use from 600 AD, when it was introduced from China. In 1872, after Japan opened to the West, it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar. The lunar sequence of years measured not only time. It was also associated with a variety of esoteric teachings, including Taoist cosmology, and mathematical computations that worked as a guide for government affairs, business decisions, military strategy, and one’s personal life.
The year in old Japan was divided into 12 lunar months (junishi), each named after an animal. It was further divided into cycles, each with major and minor variations (eto), equaling 10, named for the five Taoist elements. Combining junishi with eto creates a 60-year cycle. It gets more complicated: months have numerical and descriptive names and they are divided into 24 seasons, representing the movement of the sun by exactly 15 degrees of latitude.
The 12-year periods are also cyclical in what is expected in them in terms of the generation of cosmological forces and their eventual dissipation. The year of the Snake, for instance, is the “bottom” of the cycle, when elemental forces are at their ebb. That part of the cycle is even more pronounced this year because, using the junishi-eto method, 2013 is the Year of the Snake in the Lesser (yin or, in Japanese in) Water Element. Just to make it a little more complicated still, according to Taoist lore that was incorporated into Japanese traditions, water is associated with the color black.
The Year of the Horse begins a new cycle, so it is generally considered auspicious. That’s why many traditional schools of tea, flower arranging, martial arts, and so on, will have special ceremonies this year, many with religious connotations linked directly to the junishi-eto calendar. Other years have their own attributes. The Year of the Boar is considered a propitious time to build. In 1504 the famous castle at Matsumoto in our sister state of Nagano was begun. In 1947, the Tokyo Tower was constructed; both were Years of the Boar in the lesser water element. The worst year for building is the Year of the Snake in the greater earth element. Not surprisingly, virtually no temple, castle, or other important building can be found that was built in one of these years.
Even “good” years can have negative attributes. One Horse Year during the time of Hideyoshi Toyotomi was a major fire element, absolutely the worst time to give birth to a female. Hideyoshi had to issue an edict forbidding parents from killing girl babies born that year for fear female infanticide would be so widespread it could affect the balance of the population in the future.
Unlike the Western zodiac and contrary to the information on those placemats, the “sign” under which one was born did not determine personality. Instead, one’s actions were controlled and could be predicted by the junishi and eto of one’s birth, combined with those of the present. Divining this was a fundamental part of the art of kigaku.
So 10 February isn’t just this year’s lunar new year in Japanese tradition. It is the beginning of the Year of the Black Snake in the Lesser Water Element.
Dave Lowry is a writer and a dedicated student of Japanese martial arts. He has published widely, from the Japanese traditional arts to food.