The year of the Ox is almost over and what a tumultuous year it has been. 2021 brings to bind the curse “May you live in interesting times” because for one it is about how eventful points in history are worst times to live and two it is wrongly considered a Chinese proverb when it was fact originated from the father of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Mister famous for his policy of appeasement with the Fascist Nazis. On January 1st, 2022, the year of the tiger will begin in Japan. Lets hope that 2022 will be boring and uneventful because I am tired of living through events that will be questions on my future children`s homework. So what exactly is the ” Year of the Tiger” and what are tiger`s significance to Japan?

Large and a bit overweight tiger walking in snow
Male Siberian Tiger at Leipzig Zoo
From Appaloosa via Wikimedia Commons

Zodiac Years

Japan like other Asian countries influenced by China uses the Chinese Zodiac calendar to mark the years. The calendar is called Eto in Japanese with the 12 animals being Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and boar. The difference between Eto and Chinese Zodiac is China uses the pig not the boar. Another key difference is Japan uses the solar calendar to mark the new year(January 1st) while China and most other Asian countries use the Lunar Calendar which puts New Year in late January or early February.

The 12 zodiac animals wearing clothes and drinking tea on a long scroll
Studio of Kanō Seisen’in, Twelve Zodiac Animals at War(1840)

The Tiger in Japan

Tiger is the one zodiac animal that has little physical presence in Japan outside of zoos. Dragons are debatable, maybe they have just been playing a long game of hide and seek and no one found them yet. There haven’t been tigers in Japan since prehistoric times. They were directly borrowed from the Chinese zodiac system. But that doesn’t mean tigers have no significance at all in Japan.

An ink painting of a tiger with large eyes emerging from behind a stalk of bamboo.
Kano Tsunenobu`s Tiger Emerging from Bamboo(1704/1713)

Tigers along with dragons are the most powerful Zodiac animals. Dragons were considered water deities that brought rain while tigers control the wind. They also came to represent the earth(tiger) and the heavens(dragon). They were part of the Chinese concept of Ying Yang where two opposites are needed to have balance and peace.

Kanō Motonobu, Dragon and Tiger scrolls (late 1400s-early 1500s)

Japanese people have been aware of Tigers since at least the 8th century (most likely longer)when they appeared in a story from the Nihon Shoki, a book that chronicled Japanese history. In one account, an ambassador is sent to the Kingdom of Paekche on the Korean Peninsula and on arriving a tiger after it takes his child. the tiger is killed by the Japanese ambassador and its pelt was brought back to Japan. Tiger pelts and bones for medicine were imported from China to Japan as tributes to the imperial court. Tigers pelt were once a status symbol for Samurai during the Japanese failed invasion of Korea. Hideyoshi, one of the three unifiers of Japan banned the hunting of tigers after Samurai started getting killed.

A page written entirely in Chinese characters or Kanji
An Heian era copy of a page from the Nihon Shoki

Most never seen a tiger in person until the establishment of zoos in Japan in the late 19th century. Before then people could see tigers in artwork and stories. They were admired and feared for their strength and hunting prowess. Humorously, since many artists have never saw a tiger in real life they had to feel in the blank using animals that they knew such as a house cat.

Two porcelain light yellow tigers sitting down on colorful bases. Their faces are more hippo or canine like than feline.
Arita Porcelain Tigers (1670-1700 AD) (To me they look more like Komainu than tigers)

Tigers in Japanese

The Japanese word for tiger is Tora. WWII dads are likely familiar with this word as it was the code word used to commence the attacks on Pearl harbor. There is also the 1970 war film called Tora! Tora! Tora! that shows Japanese and American perspectives of Pearl Harbor. Tora was an abbreviation for the word, Totsugeki raigeki meaning lighting attack and it being the same word as for tiger may or may not be a coincidence. Another interesting linguistic fact about tigers is that they say “gao” not roar in Japanese. I learned this when teaching a Zoo animal version of Old McDonald Had a Farm to Japanese preschoolers.

There are countless tiger-related expressions in Japanese. For example, it’s a bit outdated but drunken men are called tigers, and the drunk trunk at a police station is called the tiger box. People say stepping on a tiger`s tail when taking a big risk. There is the saying Tora no i o karu kitsune which translates roughly to a fox borrowing the power of a tiger. This a person pretending like they have more power or authority than they actually have.

Tigers in Pop CUlture

One of Japan`s best baseball teams is called the Hanshin Tigers. This baseball team is Hyogo is the 2nd oldest in Japan and is known for having the most passionate and rowdy fans. Their mascot is a tiger called To Lucky or Torakki, his name is a combination of the Japanese words tora(tiger) and rakki(lucky).

Picture of passionate Tigers fans waving flags and cheering for their team at a game.
Passionate Tiger fans
By WackyJax via Wikimedia commons

Tokyo is home to the Giants, the arch-rival of the Hanshin Tigers but Tokyo has embraced tigers in its own way. In Shinjuku, since 1972 residents’ newspapers have been delivered by a tiger wearing outrageous costumes on a bike adorned with stuffed animals. The Shinjuku tiger is a man wearing a tiger mask who decided almost 50 years ago that he was going to be a tiger for the fun of it, to bring joy to others, and as a form of artistic protest. There is a documentary made about this Shinjuku icon a few years ago that tells his story much better than me.

The Trailer for Shinjuku Tiger by Yoshinori Sato-Nippon Connection

Where to See Tigers in Japan

Often for the first three days after New Year, people in Japan go to a temple and can pray for a good year(considering how the last few years have gone, that seems like a big ask). If you are in Japan during the year of the Tiger, you could head on over to Shigisan Chogosonshiji Temple in Nara for New Years. This temple complex has numerous tiger statues and is said to have been built during the Tiger day, month, and even year(sorry, I slipped into the Friends theme song). Tigers are also used as protection from evil or bad energy. What is a better way to celebrate the year of the Tiger in Japan than being surrounded by tigers at a temple?

Large and colorful sculpture of tiger that looks as if it is made of paper mache. The head  also appear bobbly.
Tiger Statue at Chogosonshiji
By I, KENPEI via Wikimedia Commons

7 thoughts on “The Year of the Tiger in Japan

  1. Fascinating article. I was interested to learn of the Japanese connection with the Chinese zodiac and that they used the solar calendar to mark the years. I was born in a monkey year and I remember my husband trying to buy me a gold monkey pendant as a present in one of those years but he was told that the monkey sign was not auspicious and so no amulets of a monkey would ever be found! He, on the other hand, when his Tiger year came around, could pick from a wide range of stuff to buy and he was congratulated by all around when his ‘year’ came along. PS, I got my monke, but we bought it in the UK!

    1. Yeah , they changed it during the late 1800s to be in line with the west. I didn’t know that about monkey years. Monkeys are my favorite animals haha.But they are michevous so I get why they would be unlucky. I believe Tigers and dragons are the best ones and goats the worst.

  2. The Arita porcelain tigers are funny, those kitties need dentures! They have no structure to their mouths. Hahaha. I am year of the Tiger and so is my son. I have I have only two tattoos, one of them being Tora in Kanji on my sternum. It earned me a lot of free drinks over the years when I was younger. Especially when visiting Japan. Love your posts, as always!

    1. My favorite kind of art is of animals where the artists had to just guess what they look like haha. I am glad that Japan changed pig to boar because that is my Zodiac animal. Boars may be aggressive but at least they don’t have the connotation of being messy and prone to overeating. Sounds like a cool Tatoo. The Tiger is one of the best ones! Thank you very much!

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