Kevin Short / Special to The Japan NewsFinally, the time has come to offer readers New Years congratulations according to the traditional Asian calendar. Tomorrow will mark the start of the new Wood-Horse year (Kinoe-uma doshi in Japanese). The Asian cosmology interprets time and space inside a framework of 60 that comprises the five trunk elements or energies—wood fire earth metal and water, matched with 12 branches that are usually remembered as the 12 familiar animals.
The next horse year, 2026, will be a Fire-Horse year, or Hinoe-uma. According to an old folk belief, women born in this year are apt to destroy their husbands. As a result, past Fire-Horse years have witnessed a noticeable drop in the birth rate. A study conducted by a professor of economics at Keio University, for example, reports that the birthrate fell 25 percent during the last Fire-Horse year of 1966.
I always, however, think that any horse year will be an especially good one for people living out here in the Hokuso area of northern Chiba Prefecture—the reason being that for more than 1,000 years this region was a major center of horse pasturing. Scientists now believe that horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian steppes about 6,000 years ago. From there they spread eastward and westward, probably arriving in Japan via the Korean Peninsula sometime around the beginning of the Kofun Period, in the 3rd or 4th century.
From that time onward, bronze or gold horse trappings, such as stirrups, bits, bells and ornaments, appear as grave goods in burial mounds and as offerings at shrines and temples. Haniwa, ceramic figurines placed around the mound of large burial tombs called kofun, often depict highly decorated horses. Horses were used for farmwork, transportation, and perhaps culturally most important, in warfare.
The Hokuso region contains extensive stretches of flat-topped, plateaulike high ground, called daichi in Japanese. When cleared of the native forest growth, these well-drained daichi tablelands make ideal pastures. The 10th century rebel Taira no Masakado, often referred to as the first samurai, amassed a fortune breeding horses in this area, which he then used to finance his rebellion against the imperial court. Masakado was eventually defeated, but his bold example issued in a new era of de facto control of the nation by mounted warrior clans.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns based in their castle at Edo (now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo). Large portions of the Hokuso countryside were designated as the shoguns’ official pastures. Horses were not corralled, but were allowed to graze freely over the uplands. So numerous were the horses that local villagers were forced to construct dikes and fences to keep them out of their homes and fields.
In the late Edo period, Jippensha Ikku, a popular writer of humorous illustrated travelogues, passed through the Hokuso area on one of his many pilgrimages across the land. He expressed surprise and delight at the large number of horses he encountered grazing in the open fields.
Legends involving famous horses abound in the Hokuso area, and the importance of horses in the local economy is attested to by the ubiquitous Bato-Kannon or Horsehead Kannon stone statues. Bato-Kannon is a special avatar of the popular Bodhisattva Kannon (Kwannon), dedicated to protecting horses and other animals and also to caring for their spirits in the otherworld. Bato-Kannon, as his name suggests, is always depicted with a horse head in his headdress.
Horse pasturing also had a strong influence on the regional landscape and fauna and flora. Under Japan’s natural vegetation cycle, grasslands of any type are only temporary secondary ecosystems that form when forests are destroyed by fire or wind. They last for a short period but eventually disappear when the forest regenerates. Grazing animals such as horses and cattle, however, clip the tree seedlings as they grow, and can actually help maintain the landscape in a grassland state. Certain species of wildflower, such as the pasque-flower and balloon-flower, thrive in these closely cropped grasslands, as do many types of grasshopper and birds such as the hibari skylark.
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the demand for horses decreased, and much of the former pastureland was converted to vegetable fields and orchards. Later, the Hokuso region began to develop as a suburban bed town. Today, only a few scattered ranches remain, but some local residents are working to restore and maintain small patches of the historic pastureland ecosystem.