Animals have rich symbolic and sometimes mystical meaning in Japanese culture. One sign of the importance of animals is that in Japan, each year correlates with a sign in the zodiac; each sign is represented by an animal, and each year is said to take on the personality of that animal. Otherworldly depictions of animals are seen in Japanese art, fabric, and tapestry. These animals have their own symbolism not always apparent to the western eye.
Animals of the Zodiac
The Japanese and Chinese people follow a zodiac system based on the lunar calendar that has been in use in Asia since 4000 B.C. There are 12 animals in this zodiac, each influencing an entire year. The signs are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each animal has its own set of characteristics; an individual is believed to take on the characteristics of the animal governing the year in which she was born. A person born during a year of the dog for example, would be loyal and friendly. People born in the year of the money are believed to be playful and fun.
Unlike the dragons found in western fairy tales, the dragons of Japan are a benevolent force. Originally portrayed as protectors, dragons are also believed to bestow wealth and success. The Japanese dragon is similar to the Chinese dragon, except it is depicted as having three, not five claws. People born under the zodiac sign of the dragon are thought to be proud, fiery and intellectual.
Roosters are considered sacred in Japan, so they are allowed to roam free and even enter Shinto temples, where their morning call is believed to beckon to the goddess Amaterasu. In Japanese astrology, the rooster symbol is associated with martial arts prowess, likely because of the tradition of cockfighting in Japanese culture. Deer are also sacred in Japan. In Nara, deer roam free and have become a part of the city's economy--tourists are encouraged to buy food for the deer. These Sitka deer have been around since the 12th century and are considered a good omen.
In Japan, the giraffe is named for a mythological creature called the "kirin." Kirin were believed to have magical powers that allowed them to bestow prosperity and serenity. Symbolically the giraffe in Japan is the equivalent of the western unicorn; spotting a kirin is believed to bring good luck. The kitsune is an actual living species of fox in Japan, but it is also considered to have magical properties. These animals are worshipped in the Shinto religion. They are thought of as helpers to the rice god Inari, and frequently depicted along with the god in statues and other works of art.