Ryu 龍 (Dragons)

Hello. Do you know what the zodiac animal will be in 2024? 

2024 is the year of Ryu 龍 (dragons). In Japan, the twelve Chinese zodiac signs are called Junishi, 十二支 (じゅうにし) where one of the twelve animals is responsible for each year. Also, foreign tourists have often asked me why dragons are here and there in the temples since I started volunteering as an English guide. So, today I’d like to talk about the background story of Ryu: dragons in Japan.

The Twelve Animals in Junishi

Junishi are twelve animal zodiac signs written using kanji characters (子丑寅卯辰巳午未申酉戌亥) that have been used since ancient times in order to represent dates, directions, and time. People applied twelve familiar animals to these twelve kanji characters. We Japanese pronaunce them:  Ne Ushi Tora U Tatsu Me Uma Hitsuji Saru Tori Inu I (ね うし とら う たつ み うま ひつじ さる とり いぬ い) in Japanese. They translate to rat, cows, tigers, rabbits, dragons, snakes, horses, sheep, monkeys, roosters, dogs, and wild boars. As a result of applying animals to the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, each kanji character carries various meanings to wish for happiness.

Ne 子: rat

The highly procreative rat is considered a symbol of “childbirth,” and is associated with the meaning of “prosperity of offspring”. The rat is also said to be a messenger of Daikokuten, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and thus represents “financial power” as well as “energy”.

Ushi 丑: cows
It is considered a symbol of “powerfulness,” “tenacity,” “sincerity,” and ” consistency”.

Tora 寅: tigers
It symbolizes “bravery” and “determination”.

U 卯: rabbits
It is considered a symbol of “safety”. The rabbit’s ability to leap also has a meaning of “leap” and “improvement”.

Tatsu 辰: dragons
In China, the dragon is a creature that represents “power”. And since the dragon is said to be the source of all energy, it is believed that all the luck rises from dragons.

Mi 巳: snakes 
Because snakes grow while shedding their skin, they are considered a symbol of “life” and “rebirth”.

Uma 午: horses
Having played an active role in agriculture, transportation, and samurai warfare, the horse is said to be an animal that symbolizes “health” and “good harvest”.

Hitsuji 未: sheep
It is considered a symbol of “domestic safety” and “peace”. Because of the gentle and kind nature of the sheep, there is a saying that the year of the sheep will be a year of peace and tranquility.

Saru 申: monkeys
The monkey is a symbol of “wise men” and also means ” skillful” and “flexible”.

Tori 酉: roosters
People have long been familiar with roosters as a creature associated with money. It is considered a symbol of “business prosperity”.

Inu 戌: dogs
As an animal that is loyal to its owner, the dog is a symbol of “loyalty”. It is also said that the dog has the power to rid the world of evil.

I 亥: wild boars
Wild boar meat has been thought to treat all illnesses and is a symbol of “good health”.

About Ryu

Ryu in English means dragons, but the meaning of dragons in the east and west is totally different.

In Europe and the US, dragons breathe fire, destroy things, and scare people. They are also said to be the symbol of terrible things that are hostile to gods and humans, and evil personified. They represent evil. 

On the other hand, Asian dragons are very sacred. The dragon is one of the eight gods that protects Buddhism and is called the Dragon God. Since the dragon is the god of water, temples built of wood were decorated with dragons for protection against fire. For farmers, dragons were used to pray for rain protection, and for fishermen, dragons were drawn or installed to ward against water hazards. And for China’s emperor, it was emblematic of authority.

Ryu is the only imaginary animal among the Junishi and it is said that its body is made with nine animal’s parts. Ryu has horns like a deer, a head like a camel, eyes like a demon, a neck like a snake, belly like a shin (another imaginary animal), scales like a carp, claws like a hawk, palms like a tiger, ears like a cow and a long beard.

Hearing this, don’t you think dragons are more and more mysterious creatures? They are also gracious to bring us a lot of energy and raise our luck as well. Let’s make next year a wonderful year of even more luck by decorating our home with dragon images and ornaments.

In Japan, we traditionally make and send our own new year’s greeting cards to our friends, family, colleagues, bosses, clients, etc. And we often use a Junishi animal of the year for the design of the card every year to remind people of the beginning of the new year and to wish for good luck and good fortune for the receiver. In recent years, people have simply sent new year’s messages via smartphones, but I hope that the custom of sending handwritten cards will never disappear.  Recently, I’m very lucky that I have had a lot of chances to draw dragons, and to make them with clay. I believe my next year will be wonderful.

Thank you for reading my article to the end. See you next time.

One Comment on “Ryu 龍 (Dragons)”

  1. Hi,Amii-chan! Sorry for my late comment! This is the article Aki-san mentioned in Horyuji! It is interesting that the image of dragons differs between Europe and Japan! In addition, it is funny that in our daily lives, the hated mouse is one of the twelve animals in Junishi and the very popular cat is not included(*‘∀‘)

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