Junishi: Stories around the Twelve Animals of the Zodiac


Junishi, purchase from rakuten


The Animal Zodiac story according to Kazuhiro Kikuchi

The “Junishi,” or twelve animals of the zodiac, originated in ancient China and were assigned to the 12 months of the calendar, the 12 compass directions (North, North-Northeast, East-Northeast, etc.), and the 12 hours of the day (each ancient hour equivalent to two modern hours). Over time, years were divided into 12 year cycles, with an animal assigned to each. Junishi were passed down from ancient Japan and became popular among commoners in the Edo period. Stories of junishi could be read in Nihon Mukashibanashi Taisei (Collection of Japanese Folktales), a compilation by the folklorist Keigo Seki. One of these stories is about a race among the animals. A deity specified a day and place he wanted the animals to gather and determined junishi according to the order in which the animals arrived, from 1st to 12th. The cat forgot the day of the gathering and asked the rat, but the rat purposely told him it was the day after the actual gathering. The ox walked slowly, so he started out the day before. The rat rode on his back, and just as the ox was about to reach the gathering spot, the rat jumped off his back and arrived barely ahead of the ox. Thus, the rat was 1st and the ox 2nd. The cat that had been tricked by the rat came a day late and was not included in junishi. There are many other related stories, but the current junishi was determined based on this story of the animal race.


Of Chinese origin:  Daoist (Taoist) symbols carved in stone: yin-yang and animals of the Chinese zodiac. Qingyanggong temple, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

The junishi was introduced into Japan around the 4th c. A.D. Juni means “twelve” in Japanese, the zodiac is referred to as juni-shi, “the twelve branches”, because of the cycle of twelve years.

Some of the animals in the zodiac are adopted singly and enshrined in local shrines in various places, because of their appearance in local myths or folklore. In Sendai, however, the junishi concept is elevated as a ketaigami practice where each animal is a guardian deity of junishi practice is taken up a notch, with twelve local shrines each associated with a specific zodiac. This Sendai tradition began in the Edo era since the construction of the Sendai Castle, matched the location of associated shrines with direction of each zodiac for the purpose of protecting the castle. In East Asia, there used to be an ancient practice among certain royal elites of painting the junishi protector animal guardian deities on their sarcophagus murals.

Junishi remains popular today, partly because of the 12 animals are displayed either as a set or singly as “hariko” papier mâché  — an essential New Year seasonal decoration tradition that many homes still preserve as entry hallway decorations or travel souvenirs. Some local towns, such as Kurashiki in Okayama, survive through their tourism cottage industry, where making these junishi mingei folk craft that were often begun by local feudal lords. Click on the animal below to see where you can purchase these individual hariko or ceramic junishi animal figurine, some of the best made-in-Japan buys – start collecting one of these darling hariko now!

(Ne): Rat yokozuna rat
丑 (Ushi): Ox kinbeko (golden cow)
寅 (Tora): Tiger
卯 (U): Rabbit
辰 (Tatsu): Dragon
巳 (Mi): Snake
午 (Uma): Horse
未 (Hitsuji): Sheep/ Ram
申 (Saru): Monkey
酉 (Tori): Rooster
戌 (Inu): Dog
亥 (Inoshishi): Wild Boar

Or purchase an entire set from ebay here or katokagu or from eto dolls.

Further reading on this topic:

Junishi: The unknown aspect of the Japanese zodiac

Junishi: The twelve animal signs of the oriental zodiac

Junishi: The twelve signs of the zodiac (Japan Experience)

Ming dynasty zodiac animal attendants


Explore Tohoku

Yokozuna rat (Takamatsu hariko, Mingei fukuda)

Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored, nor does the author receive any profit for any of the products linked.


Copyright © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s