Junishi: 12 Signs of the Japanese Zodiac

Let’s put another spin on your zodiac compatibility charts

Did you know that Japan has a zodiac system in a sort of similar way to the one used in the West? But instead of 12 signs defined by constellations in the firmament, this one has 12 animals based on Chinese astrology and determined by the birth year, rather than the birth day. Under this system, each animal is associated with a year, and it’s called Junishi (十二支) literally “twelve branches”.

And in the same way as the horoscope, each animal has certain traits that are supposedly inherited by the people who are born in their corresponding year. It’s a fun way to learn about Japanese culture and maybe even discover something new about yourself. Now imagine all the fun personality variations that can be achieved when combining both!

So if by any chance you have noticed a surge in rabbit illustrations since the beginning of this year, bingo! 2023 is the year of the rabbit! In addition to personality traits, animal years are believed to have some effects on the events of the said year itself.

Historical Background of Junishi

Depiction of the circle of 12 signs of Chinese zodiacThis 12-year cycle originated in China, where besides identifying years, also served the purpose of time, analogous to our 12-hour system, and compass directions, where each animal was linked to a cardinal direction. For instance, the rat is the first sign and it also identifies the north. Subsequent cardinal points follow the order (detailed below) clockwise, with 30 degrees of difference for each. So the ox and tiger would point to northeast positions, the rabbit to the east, and so on.

Earliest depictions of the 12 animals of the zodiac have been identified in Chinese tombs as early as around 500 BC and its complexity kept on developing over the centuries. In Japan, the lunar calendar remained the standard until 1872, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted amidst modernization efforts.

The 12 Signs of the Japanese Zodiac

There’s a funny myth going around about how the 12 animals of the zodiac came to be: Once upon a time, near the end of the year, God made an announcement, promising reign over one year for the first 12 animals that came to him on New Year’s Day, prompting a race among all the animals.

The cautious ox departed the earliest but turns out the clever rat was riding it secretly. So it jumped in front of the ox when it arrived, thus earning first place. Furthermore, the rat had also tricked the cat into believing the race would take place on the 2nd day of the year, causing the cat to lose entirely and stay out of the zodiac. Sorry cat lovers!

So here’s a small overview of the 12 animal winners. Note that zodiac sign kanji may not coincide with current usage for some animals:

1. Rat (子年, nezumi)

Small figurine depicting the rat from Chinese ZodiacAs established by the myth, rats are considered the luckiest of them all. Also, because of their prolific nature, they’re associated with fertility and prosperity. Those born under the rat sigil are said to be resourceful, quick-witted, and charming and persuasive to get what they want.

Rat years: 2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924, 1912.

2. Ox (丑年, ushi)

Small figurine depicting the ox from Chinese ZodiacOx are strong, dependable, and historically a valuable farming resource. These qualities are also reflected in people born under the sign of the Ox, who are supposed to be hardworking and always moving slowly but patiently and steadily forward in the face of a challenge with unwavering determination.

Ox years: 2021, 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925.

3. Tiger (寅年, tora)

Small figurine depicting the tiger from Chinese ZodiacTigers are perceived as decisive and intelligent lucky creatures. Tiger people are believed to be fiery and adventurous, albeit stubborn and short-tempered. But their confidence is a magnet for the people around them and in turn, they care a lot about those they’re close to. 

Tiger years: 2022, 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926.

4. Rabbit (卯年, usagi)

Small figurine depicting the rabbit from Chinese ZodiacRabbits are famous for breeding quickly and in great numbers, therefore it may not be surprising that they’re associated with growth and good family fortune. As such, they’re quite popular as a lucky symbol and people born on a rabbit year tend to be regarded as virtuous and talented. 

Rabbit years: 2023, 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927.

5. Dragon (辰年, tatsu)

Small figurine depicting the dragon from Chinese ZodiacConsidered by many as one of the coolest signs, the mythical and powerful dragon is awe-inspiring, but also linked to justice and power. Being born on a dragon year might give you an edge in boldness, creativity, and charisma, while also being sensitive and honest.

Dragon years: 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928.

6. Snake (巳年, hebi)

Small figurine depicting the snake from Chinese ZodiacA fascinating creature, its capability to shed its skin has linked snakes to ideas of renovation and rebirth, as well as wisdom. This is why snake people are perceived as clever and intuitive, sometimes even cunning, and capable of reinventing themselves in order to beat the odds.

Snake years: 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929.

7. Horse (午年, uma)

Small figurine depicting the horse from Chinese ZodiacBeloved creatures for their contributions to human society in a similar way to the ox, horses are associated with rich harvests and general well-being. Coming into this world during a horse year is considered to help with a flexible and bright character, free-spirited and full of energy. 

Horse years: 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930.

8. Sheep (未年, hitsuji)

Small figurine depicting the sheep from Chinese ZodiacThis cute and gentle herd creature tends to be associated with group harmony and peace, so sheep years usually bring hopes of a stable and uneventful period. Those who are born on a sheep year are considered kind and peaceful, with a warm and nurturing spirit. 

Sheep years: 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931.

9. Monkey (申年, saru)

Small figurine depicting the monkey from Chinese ZodiacMonkeys have been a longstanding symbol of skill and intelligence, even going as far as being considered sacred messengers at some point. So people born in a monkey year may unsurprisingly be clever with a penchant for mischief, creativity, and adventure. 

Monkey years: 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920.

10. Rooster (酉年, tori)

Small figurine depicting the rooster from Chinese ZodiacThe rooster, with its eye-catching looks, are regarded as a lucky symbol of success in business endeavors. Therefore, those born under the sign of the rooster are seen as proud and confident, with a bold and assertive personality and a knack for commercial projects. 

Rooster years: 2017, 2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921.

11. Dog (戌年, inu)

Small figurine depicting the dog from Chinese ZodiacDogs are seen as beloved and faithful companions and Japanese culture is no exception, where they’re regarded as symbols of devotion and good social interactions. People born under the sigil of the dog are believed to be loyal and dutiful partners, loving and reliable. 

Dog years: 2018, 2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922.

12. Boar (亥年, inoshishi)

Small figurine depicting the boar from Chinese ZodiacBoars, those fearless little tanks notorious for their strength and resistance, are seen as the paragon of staying in good shape. Sporting the sign of the boar is often associated with short temper, stubbornness, and resistance but also bravery, warmth, and generosity.

Boar years: 2019, 2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923.

Japanese Zodiac in Social Customs

Small figurines for sale depicting all the animals from the Chinese Zodiac

Despite Junishi losing its old function for time and direction, it still holds a prominent space in some social customs. Most obviously on New Year greeting cards, generally adorned with illustrations of the year’s corresponding animal. In a similar way, all year long all sorts of lucky charms and omikuji (strips of paper with fortune predictions that can be obtained in all temples and shrines) with zodiac animal themes can be found.

Additionally, when a year comes that matches one’s birth animal, many expect the such year to be somewhat special. So if you happened to be born in a rabbit year, make sure to make the most of it during 2023!

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Written by

Photographer, journalist, and avid urban cyclist, making sense of Japan since 2017. I was born in Caracas and lived for 14 years in Barcelona before moving to Tokyo. Currently working towards my goal of visiting every prefecture in Japan, I hope to share with readers the everlasting joy of discovery and the neverending urge to keep exploring.