You see sheep in many places.
I saw this Sheep Tree (?) in Tokyo Michi-Terrace, the Christmas light event around Tokyo Station.
What’s a Sheep Year?
Once upon a time, at the end of a year…
God told animals, “Come to greet me in the morning of New Year’s Day. I will give the place of Animal of the Year to those who win first to twelfth prizes in the race.”
Animals got excited and prepared for the race. Among them, Cat was not sure when to visit God, so he asked Mouse. Then Mouse told him a lie, “It’s the morning of 2nd January.”
Cattle thought, “I am always slow. I’m starting earlier than others to win the race.” He started at the night, but he didn’t realize that Mouse jumped on his back.
When Cattle reached God’s palace, the gate was still closed and there were not any other animals, so he was happy to think, “I am the first prize winner!”
God opened the gate. Then Mouse jumped from Cattle’s back and got the first prize. Cattle got the second.
After that, many other animals arrived – Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Chicken, Dog and Boar. They became Animal of the Year in turn.
The next morning, Cat visited God, but the race was over. He couldn’t join the 12 animals and got very angry with Mouse. It is said that that’s why cats chase mice.
These 12 animals also appears in old Japanese horoscope, calendar, clock, astrology and compass. They are originated from ancient Chinese culture.
They changed on the way to spread over East Asia, including Korea, Mongolia and Japan. In Japan, the Tale of 12 animals got fixed several hundreds of years ago, when it became well-known among common people.
So other animals appear in the tale in some countries – I hear that there is Pig in China. The ending a bit differs in some countries or regions – God reproached Cat and told him to come back after washing his face, that’s when cats started to wash their face, for example.
In conclusion, there are not specific things that are completely fixed and stable about The Tale of 12 Year Animals, but that’s how a culture spreads.
When you meet some sheep in 2015, greet them!
Read Other Folk Tales…
- Tanabata (Japanese Star Festival) Tale
- Tengu legends in Mt. Takao, Western Tokyo
- Mt. Kachi Kachi Tale near Mt. Fuji
A Picture Book of the Tale of 12 Year Animals