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News Navigator: When was the Chinese zodiac system introduced into Japan?

2016 is the "Year of the Monkey" under the Chinese zodiac calendar, which is also used in Japan. The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the zodiac system.

    Question: What are the origins of the Chinese zodiac calendar?

    Answer: The Chinese zodiac system were originally used before 10th century B.C. China like numerals to describe days, time and directions. They later came to be used to describe years as well. There are 10 celestial stems and 12 horary signs, which are made into a total of 60 combinations. The horary signs were assigned animals during the Han Dynasty of 202 B.C. to 8 A.D. This year's combination for the Year of the Monkey signifies, according to experts, a year of change and revolution.

    Q: Why were the horary signs assigned animals?

    A: There are various theories, such as that it was to make the calendar -- essential to farm work -- easier to memorize. However, the reason is not known for sure.

    Q: When was the Chinese zodiac calendar introduced into Japan?

    A: It is thought to have been introduced into Japan around the 6th century A.D. The Kitora Tomb in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, which is thought to have been built at the end of the 7th century A.D., contains drawings of the zodiac.

    Q: What kind of position do monkeys hold in Japanese culture?

    A: Monkeys appear in traditional Japanese folklore and are considered a familiar existence. While most live in the tropics or subtropics, the Japanese macaque lives the furthest north of any non-human primate. The sight of Japanese macaques, or "snow monkeys," in hot springs in Japan is famous around the world.

    At the Shinkyusha stable at the Nikko Toshogu shrine that honors Japan's historical leader Tokugawa Ieyasu in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, are famous sculptures of the three "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" monkeys. Monkeys are traditionally considered the divine protectors of horses, and many enshrined monkey skulls have been found in the stables of old homes in the northern Kanto and Tohoku regions. Monkeys have also been considered good luck because the Japanese word for "monkey" sounds the same as the Japanese word for "leave," as in the leaving of one's troubles. Monkey masks are sometimes used to ward off bad fortune.

    There are historical records that say that during the Edo period, feudal lords would summon monkey trainers over the New Year holidays and, after having them bless their horse stables, would have them make the monkeys perform on stage for amusement. (Answers by Ryusuke Takahashi, Utsunomiya Bureau)

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