Year of the Tiger

Detail of a Tiger from a wall-scroll dated 1755, Itou Jakuchuu

By reckoning of the Chinese lunar calendar, 2010 will be the Year of the Tiger. That means that anyone born in 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926, 1914, 1902, 1890 etc, will have a year full of extra-special good luck, prosperity, and good-fortune (well, I’m not sure even the Chinese calendar can speak for those born in 1890. Sorry.). If you’ve been putting anything off the past twelve years, I recommend you Tigers get off your haunches and put it into action– because you won’t get astrological backing like this until 2022. That’s very far away, just so you know.

The Chinese (and Japanese) lunar calendar functions in cycles of 12 years. Each year is represented by a zodiac animal (called the “Juunishi”, in Japanese), which in turn, has its own unique characteristics and traits which are said to carry over into people of that sign. However, unlike our western zodiac, where your sign is determined by the month/day of your birth, your Chinese/Japanese zodiac sign is determined by the year of birth.

Chinese Zodiac diagram

(Note: For those born in January, when determining your Zodiac sign, be warned that your sign will depend on which month the Chinese New Year happened in the year you were born. For example, in 1991 the New Year happened in February, therefor anyone born in January of 1991 is actually the horse sign, and not the sheep (which is credited as year 1991. Never trust Chinese restaurant placemats.)

Unlike the Chinese New Year, which moves around a lot, the Japanese New Year takes place always on January 1st. Easy for you lot to keep track of. In Japanese, it is called “Oshougatsu“, and the appropriate greeting is “akemashite omedetou gozaimasu“.

Traditional Japanese celebrations begin typically the day before, or several days before, January 1st. Usually the entire house is cleaned thoroughly– futons are aired, tatami mats are repaired/changed/dusted, shouji (sliding doors) are cleaned and fixed/ paper gets changed, walls and floors get scrubbed, etc. The purpose of this extensive (and exhausting) cleaning is to clear out all the old energy and filth of the passing year, to make room for good, brilliant, fresh energy in the new year.

Traditionally, family would gather together and make old-fashioned home-made mochi

Making mochi

(pounded rice-cakes), which can turn out so fatally chewy that the Japanese invented a special vacuum-tool specifically for the use of sucking stuck pieces of gluey mochi from aging relative’s gullets. Nowadays because the process of pounding the rice to prepare mochi is so strenuous and time-consuming, most families purchase their mochi (although apparently it’s much more glutenous than home-made mochi, and thus many times more fatal to Grandma).

Another tradition is sending oshougatsu cards. No, Japanese post-men do not have New Year’s day off. In fact, vast amounts of mail is delivered on January 1st. People write cards (usually with an image of the year’s zodiac on it and a set phrase) and send them up to a month before hand. They stamp the envelope with a stamp that basically says to hold the mail, and the post-office sets the mail aside for each family, so that these cards do not arrive a day before, nor a day after, January 1st.

On New Year’s Eve, some families prepare special new year’s bentou (lunch boxes), and almost everyone eats fresh soba noodles (buckwheat noodles)  and mandarin oranges. The last two are very traditional oshougatsu foods. Then everyone sits around, legs tucked under the kotatsu table, to watch the first sunrise of the year. Around 10:30 PM, the shinto-Buddhist temples will begin ringing their bells–a total of 108 times (to cleanse the spirit of the 108 sins). The bells are rung slowly, and usually take about an hour. Then everyone eats end-of-year soba noodles in broth, and as one is eating it, one is meant to spend some time considering how delicious and wonderful the food is, and how healthy it is, and how healthy we are eating such a wonderful meal. Soba is eaten as the last thing one has in the old year. It serves the purpose of, more or less, setting the pace for the coming year: healthiness, strength, prosperity, and beauty.  Therefor, it is important to spend some time contemplating that, and focusing attention and energy into how you would like to have the new year develop.

Then we will all make our New Year’s wishes!

Note:  It is customary to refuse any kind of alcoholic beverage on new Year’s Eve (quite unlike the barbaric West) , because it sets a bad precedence for the entire year if you’re slammed instead of approaching the coming year with a clear, perceptive, appreciative mind. So save the sake for New Year’s day!

a Chinese-style Tiger

If you want to learn more about the Chinese zodiac, read the shoujou manga Fruits Basket. The story is about an orphaned teenage girl who is taken in by a mysterious and beautiful family of young men– each one carrying the curse of the Juunishi (zodiac). Shoujo, yes, but friendly to the sensitive boy– FB is a sweet read.

Also check out to determine your zodiac sign and learn more.

Not long now until New Year’s, so I hope that this post helped you decide your plans! I will be preparing okonomiyaki and watching GACKT live DVDs until dawn.



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