A Time for Everything in Japan
By Awake! correspondent in Japan
A YOUNG man from rural Japan moved to Tokyo to attend college. There he met a pretty, intelligent girl and planned to marry her. But his family so vehemently opposed the courtship that the young man was forced to give up his love. Why? Because his year of birth and her year of birth, according to the traditional Japanese calendar, were considered incompatible.
On June 13, 1985, the Japan branch of the Watch Tower Society wanted to start work on the structural steel for a new residence building in Ebina. However, the steel construction company preferred not to do so on the suggested day because it was a “bad luck day” according to the traditional Japanese calendar.
There is no doubt that the Japanese are an intelligent, industrious, and educated people. Yet, there is a deep-rooted tradition that prescribes an auspicious time for every undertaking. In Japan there is a time to do or not to do everything. How did such a regimented, superstitious concept of time originate? To what extent is life in modern Japanese society affected? And how will an understanding of the matter benefit us?
The Traditional Japanese Calendar
Although the Western-style calendar is in common use in Japan, an ancient lunar calendar, adopted from China in 604 C.E., is often used alongside it. This system of counting time is based on a sexagenary cycle, or a cycle of 60, formed by the permutation and combination of two sets of symbols called the 10 celestial stems and the 12 terrestrial branches.
In the Japanese version, the former (the ten stems) are based on the Japanese concept of the universe, which is said to consist of five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—and each element has two aspects: yang (male, or such positive traits as brightness, warmth, dryness, action) and yin (female, or such negative qualities as darkness, cold, wetness, passivity). The 12 terrestrial branches are represented by a sequence of 12 animals—rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.
The cycle begins with the combination of the first stem with the first branch, namely, wood-yang rat. Next is the combination of the second stem with the second branch, or wood-yin ox. Then follows fire-yang tiger, fire-yin hare, and others. The total combination in this fashion is 60, hence the sexagenary cycle. Days, months, and years are all counted by the same cycle of 60. The year 604 C.E. started the first cycle, and a new cycle began every 60 years after that. The present cycle began in 1984. So, what would 1988 be? Since it is the fifth year in the cycle, it is an earth-yang-dragon year.
The Almanac That “Fixes Times”
Because of the obvious astrological connections, the symbols in the cycle soon came to have superstitious meanings attached to them. These various superstitious ideas and observances were eventually printed in a yearly almanac. Even today, many Japanese people still consult the almanac to try to determine good or bad luck, success or failure, in all sorts of activities in everyday life.
For example, many people in Japan still believe that a person born in a certain year takes on the characteristics of the animal represented in the combination for that year. Those born under the sign of the rat, for instance, are said to be restless and stingy; those born in the year of the ox are patient and slow; the tiger, gruff and harsh; the snake, suspicious and unable to get along with others. ‘Oh, she’s born in the year of the snake—that’s why she’s the way she is!’ Expressions like that are still commonly heard in Japan.
According to the almanac, women born in the fire-yang-horse year (43rd in the cycle) are supposed to be especially headstrong, with a tendency to kill their husbands. Consequently, people, especially those in rural Japan, avoided having children in that year, resulting in marked decreases in the size of school classes. Thus, in October 1985 the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, under the headline “Bankruptcies of the Cramming Schools Soaring,” explained that in 1966 (a fire-yang-horse year), births in Japan were markedly lower than normal, and children born in that year would normally have supported the schools in 1984 and 1985.
Certain days of the cycle are considered auspicious or lucky, and others just the opposite. Among the latter are the Gomunichi, or five tombs days, on which the earth must not be disturbed or moved. Many people cautiously avoid holding a funeral on such days, for no one wants to end up with five tombs, that is, with five people dead. Just to be sure, before any major undertaking, one must consult the almanac.
The calendar and the almanac play a particularly important role in marriages. Although six in ten couples nowadays say theirs is a “love marriage,” arranged marriages are still common in Japan, and predicting compatibility is a subject of much interest. The almanac not only advises the auspicious time to marry but also tells which persons are compatible. For example, a person born in the year of the rat (1948, 1960, 1972) would be especially compatible with someone born in the year of the dragon (1952, 1964, 1976), monkey (1956, 1968, 1980), or ox (1949, 1961, 1973). Even in “love marriages,” pressure is often brought to bear by relatives for a person to marry only someone with a “matching” birth year.
Effect of Such a “Fixed” System
Fear of the unknown and the pursuit of good luck laid a rigid hold on the way of life in ancient Japanese society. But the strong grip of superstition has hardly diminished in modern-day Japan in spite of its literacy rate of nearly 100 percent and its advanced technology.
A 1950 survey conducted by the Ministry of Education found that among 6,373 adults who responded, 33 percent rated the ideas about auspicious and inauspicious days “definitely true” and 44 percent “possibly true.” On the prediction of marriage compatibility, 23 percent answered “definitely true,” and 36 percent answered “possibly true.” Rather than being a thing of the past, from one half to three quarters of the people surveyed still hold on to such superstitious ideas. As the book Japanese Religion comments, “It is part of people’s lives.”
But how do such beliefs affect the people? For one thing, by mechanically following the arbitrary dictates of superstitious ideas, a person may begin to lose the ability to think and reason on personal matters. The sayings, advice, and directives from the almanac, no matter how unreasonable and illogical, come to dominate the choices he must make in life. Soon, he may find himself unable to make any decision without consulting the almanac.
Belief in “fixed times” and luck also fosters a fatalistic view of life. When an undertaking fails or something goes wrong, it is so easy to blame it on bad luck or inauspicious time. Rather than look for the real cause of the failure, one pushes on, hoping for better luck. When this results in more disappointment, then the individual may simply resign himself to the fact that it was not his lot to succeed in the first place. Such a vicious circle only serves to enslave the people ever deeper in superstition and fear.
Is there any hope? Yes, indeed. Already, over 125,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan have experienced the Bible’s promise: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) This includes freedom from slavery to superstition. Study of the Bible has led them to clear thinking-ability, improved self-confidence, hope for a happy future, and the resultant joy.
[Pictures on page 10]
Marriage partners and wedding days are often selected by consulting the almanac