Out with the old and in with the new, a New Year approaches and 2012 is the Year of the Dragon. The dragon holds a treasured history within the Japanese and Chinese zodiac. It’s the only creature of myth among tigers, horses, rabbits and roosters. Individuals born in Dragon years are considered to be healthy, lucky, and brave. Dragon years are noted to encounter significant challenges, offset only by the great rewards for overcoming these obstacles.
The evolution of the present day Japanese zodiac calendar called Kanshi or Eto dates back centuries to the adoption of the Chinese lunar calendar in the 7th century. Lunar calendars were based on the cycles of the moon – twelve months, each with 29 or 30 days and a rare 13th month added to adjust the discrepancy of the solar cycle to the seasons. Features of the lunar calendar are still prominent today. Instead of the linear pattern seen in the western calendar, the Chinese zodiac system uses a 60 year cyclic system represented by twelve different animals – rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. It is said that a person born in the year of the respective animal will carry the personality traits of that animal. Because of its ties with Buddhism, the twelve animals were often seen surrounding a Buddhist deity offering protection.
Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873. The Japanese have excluded some elements of the Gregorian calendar such as designating March 21st as the vernal equinox. Buddhist and Shinto traditions hold the equinox as a very important religious holiday. The day is determined by astronomy; therefore it is not a fixed date. Saturday and Sunday are not recognized as a religious Sabbath. While leap year is not recognized, it is based on Koki law and their lunar calculation is aligned with the Gregorian calendar.
In the zodiac, the year is broken down into pillars or seasons, and the individual months are linked to a season. An element that is linked to season is named to identify some of its characteristics of the month. The modern names for the months translate literally into “first month”, “second month”, etc. and combined with the suffix “gatsu” meaning month.
The twelve months are defined as:
• 1st month: mutsuki the “Month of Affection
• 2nd month: kisaragi or kinusaragi the “Changing Clothes”
• 3rd month: yayoi, the “New Life”
• 4th month: uzuki, “u-no-hana “ the flower,
• 5th month: satsuki or sanaetsuki, the “Early-rice-planting Month”
• 6th month: minatsuki, the “Month of Water” a reference to the flooding of the rice fields
• 7th month: fumizuki, the “Month of Books”
• 8th month: hazuki the “Month of Leaves” or Month of Falling Leaves
• 9th month: nagatsuki “The Long Month”
• 10th month: kaminazuki or kannazuki, the “month of the gods ”
• 11th month: shimotsuki, the “Month of Frost”
• 12th month: shiwasu “Priests Running” referring to the busy time of year in preparation for new year’s blessings.
The seven day week was originally brought to Japan in 800 AD with the Buddhism calendar. The names are derived from the five Chinese elements -gold, wood, water, fire, earth and from the sun and moon yin and yang.
Sunday – Sun
Monday – Moon
Tuesday – Fire (Mars)
Wednesday – Water (Mercury)
Thursday – Wood/Tree (Jupiter)
Friday – Metal/Gold (Venus)
Saturday – Earth (Saturn)
In Japan, each month is divided into three 10-day periods called “Jun” and is used to indicate approximate reference times. Another aspect of the lunar calendar that has survived into modern Japan is the subdivision of the calendar into six days (rokuyo). The six days are called taian, butsumetsu, senpu, tomobiki, shakko and sensho, and they are associated with good and bad fortune. Taian is the most auspicious day and is reserved for weddings and important business transactions. Butsumetsu is considered the least auspicious day and funerals are never held on tomobiki.
Sumi-e art and wood blocking prints are frequently seen adorning Japanese calendars. Each piece of art is unique representing the elements and depicting the twelve months.