Happy New Year…of the Sheep!

Photo: The Winter 2015 JETAABC Japanese Language Course is a GO!  Our hard-working students had their first class, got to know each other, and revealed their New Year's resolutions via nengajou (New Year's Cards).Happy New Year everyone!  We are pleased to report that the Winter 2015 JETAABC Japanese Language Course has started in this, the year of the sheep.  During our first class, we were asked to write a “nengajou”, and in the process the question arose about why there seem to be two “sheep” kanji for the year of the sheep, i.e., 羊 and 未.  This is what I’ve been able to come up with.

The 未 kanji is one of the building blocks of the Chinese sexagenary cycle (also known as Stems-Branches), a cyclic numeral system of 60 combinations of the two basic cycles, i.e., the ten Heavenly Stems and the twelve Earthly Branches.  In order to represent a year, one Heavenly Stem and one Earthly Stem is combined.  The specifics of this fascinating system are outside of the scope of this entry (you can learn more here).  The important part is that the 12 animal signs are associated with the twelve Earthly Branches.

  1. Rat:  子 (Earthly Branch) / 鼠 (Animal Sign)
  2. Ox/Buffalo: 丑 (Earthly Branch) / 牛 (Animal Sign)
  3. Tiger:  寅 (Earthly Branch) / 虎 (Animal Sign)
  4. Rabbit/Hare: 卯 (Earthly Branch) / 兎 (Animal Sign)
  5. Dragon: 辰 (Earthly Branch) / 竜 (Animal Sign)
  6. Snake: 巳 (Earthly Branch) / 蛇 (Animal Sign)
  7. Horse: 午 (Earthly Branch) / 馬 (Animal Sign)
  8. Sheep: 未 (Earthly Branch) / 羊(Animal Sign)
  9. Monkey: 申 (Earthly Branch) / 猿 (Animal Sign)
  10. Chicken/Rooster: 酉 (Earthly Branch) / 鳥 (Animal Sign)
  11. Dog: 戌 (Earthly Branch) / 犬 (Animal Sign)
  12. Pig/Boar: 亥 (Earthly Branch) / 猪 (Animal Sign)

The question then becomes:  How did this association take place?

There are a number of myths to explain the selection and order of the 12 zodiac animals. According to one version of what is arguably the most popular myth, the great Jade Emperor decided that he wanted the people of China to have a way to measure time in 12-year increments.  He told all animals about his plan, and the cat and rat decided to ride on the back of the speedy ox to win the race.  Along the way, however, the rat pushed the cat off and jumped ahead of the ox to become the first sign of the zodiac.  The myth also goes into details about the order of the animals that came next.  The cat, reeling from his fall, came in 13th, and thus never made it into the calendar.  It is said that this is why cats chase rats.

Another version of the story has it that the cat asked the rat to wake him up before the race.  The rat, however, did not and the cat failed to make it in time to be included in the years of the Chinese zodiac.  Yet more explanations are offered here.

For all you cat lovers out there, fear not.  The good people of Vietnam have their own legend in which the cat does make it into the calendar, albeit at the expense of the rabbit.  Again, the reasoning is not clear, but an explanation is offered here.

So, there you have it!  With all that said, JETAABC wishes you all a happy year of the sheep!