Saturday, January 25, 2020

2020 Year of the Rat

It's been a while since I've actually posted something, so I thought I'd take advantage of Chinese New Year to make a post about this year's Year of the Rat.

Why post about Chinese New Year and the Chinese Zodiac on my blog about Japanese culture?

Well, because Chinese New Year and the Chinese Zodiac are pretty much intertwined in Japanese culture.

My eldest is now memorizing the order of the animals as they appear in the Chinese Zodiac. All Japanese children have to memorize it at some point. It's that important.

And there is an order.

The Order of the Chinese Zodiac
When speaking in the context of the Chinese Zodiac (known as "eto 干支), the animals have different Chinese characters to represent their signs. Their names are also abbreviated.

The order of animal signs on the Chinese Zodiac are the mouse/rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog, wild boar.

In Japanese, the names of those animals are "nezumi" (鼠, ねずみ), "ushi" (牛, うし), "tora" (虎, とら), "usagi" (兎, うさぎ), "tatsu" (龍, たつ), "hebi" (蛇, へび), "uma" (馬, うま), "hitsuji" (羊, ひつじ), "saru" (猿, さる), "tori" (鳥, とり), "inu" (犬, いぬ), and "inoshishi" (猪, いのしし).

But as I've already said, when they appear in the Chinese Zodiac, the animals have different kanji and abbreviations for their names to distinguish between an animal when spoken about as a creature, and the same animal when spoken about as a sign in the zodiac.

The zodiac signs and their abbreviations are "ne" from "nezumi" (子, ね) , "ushi" (丑, うし) , "tora" (寅, とら) , "u" from "usagi" (卯, う), "tatsu" (辰, たつ), "mi" (巳, み), "uma" (午, うま), "hitsuji" (未, ひつじ), "saru" (申, さる), "tori" (酉, とり), "inu" (戌, いぬ), "i" from "inoshishi" (亥, い).

It's fitting that the Year of the Rat should coincide with 2020, which marks the beginning of a brand new decade, since the Rat is the first sign of the Chinese Zodiac.

There are a few different stories that Chinese and Japanese people tell to talk about why the order of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac. They differ according to country and perhaps even by person. (LOL!) The main gist is this: Buddha, or the Jade Emperor, God, or whatever deity you prefer, held a race among twelve animals to decide the order of signs in the Chinese Zodiac.

It is said that the last part of the race included reaching the goal on an island in the middle of a lake. The rat is said to be clever, for it rode on the head of the cow the whole time. The cow swam easily across the lake, and the mouse didn't have to do to much work. As the cow approached the shore, the mouse jumped off, thus earning first place, and the cow becoming the second animal in the Chinese Zodiac.

The tiger had a hard time swimming against the current, so it took 3rd place.

The rabbit wasn't very good at swimming and rode across on a log, earning 4th place.

The dragon is said to be a kind and benevolent creature, and took some time to put out a fire it saw along the way. Upon arriving to the lake, it saw the rabbit struggling on a log, and blew him to shore. Satisfied with the rabbit's safety, the dragon was content to finish at 5th place, though the rabbit never really knew it was helped.

It is said the snake hitched a ride on the swift horse by coiling itself on one of its legs. With the end in sight, the snake uncoiled itself and scared the horse to go ahead of it. thus the snake is 6th and the horse is 7th.

The sheep, monkey and rooster are said to have worked as a team. They made a raft and rode across the lake together. Upon arriving, however, it was a mad dash to the finish. The sheep was first, followed by the monkey and then the rooster, which is why they in 8th, 9th and 10th place respectively.

The dog was distracted by the lake; it would rather play and splash around in the water. While it was doing this, it was overtaken by all the other animals, and thus he is the 11th animal.

Why did the pig come in last?

It got hungry and stopped for a meal along the way. After eating himself silly, it dosed off. The pig did wake up eventually, but for this reason, it earned 12th place.

I think readers will see how the story also tells of each sign's characteristics. The mouse is clever and resourceful. The cow is slow but steady. The tiger is formidable but has his weakness. The rabbit tries hard but may lack self-awareness to realize other people are trying to help him. The snake is also resourceful, and may use unpleasant tactics to get what it wants. The sheep, monkey and rooster are team players, but in the end it's every man for himself. I happen to be rooster, and I often hear that roosters are show-offs and like to talk an awful lot. Dogs may be fun-loving to the point of neglecting what is important. Pigs may be care-free and like the dog, could miss out on important things if they overindulge. In Japan, the pig is replaced by the wild boar, and it is said that wild boars may be hot-tempered, and tend to lose themselves in anger. The Japanese say that a charging wild boar always runs in a straight line blindly and may even hurt itself if it runs into a wall.

Differences in Other Cultures
Other countries in the Sinosphere adopted the Chinese Zodiac, but made changes to suit the local culture. In Japan, the pig was replaced with a wild boar, and the sheep is actually a goat in Chinese culture. In Vietnam, the cow was replaced with the water buffalo, and they use a cat instead of a rabbit. Readers might be interested to know that in Chinese and even Japanese culture, there is no real difference between a mouse or a rat, essentially being the same animal in Asian culture, so you will see rats and mice displayed interchangeably during the Year of the Rat.

Well, that about does it for this blog post!

Here is a short tribute to mice/rats in video games!

"Neek" from Donkey Kong Country 2

"Technosqueak" from Sonic 3 and Knuckles

"Daroach" from Kirby: Squeak Squad

Related Posts:
Setsubun: Japan's Old New Year

FLASHBACK: Funny Setsubun Story

An Asian New Year Tradition: The Lion Dance

Oshogatsu: Japanese New Year