The Tale of 12 “Year Animals” in Japan

2015 is a Sheep Year in Japan. 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?

In fact, it is based on a tale which is originated from China and came to Japan in the 6th century. Here is the story. You’ll love it!

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 the first to twelfth prizes in the race.”

Animals got excited and prepared for the race. Among them, Cat asked Mouse when to visit God because he was not sure. Then, Mouse told him a lie, “It’s the morning of 2nd January.”

Cattle thought, “I am always slow. I’m starting earlier than any others to win the race.” He started at the night, but he didn’t realize that Mouse jumped onto 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 the “Animal of the Year” in turn.

The next morning, Cat visited God – turned out that 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 always chase mice.


These 12 animals also appears in old Japanese horoscope, calendar, clock, astrology and compass. They are originated from ancient Chinese culture.

These stories and cultures 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, and that’s when cats started to wash their face, for example.

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!


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