A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

For the Year-of-the-Sheep : Sheep in Japanese History and Culture


National Museum in }Ueno

These stone sheep (rams- symbol of the male force) from the Korean Peninsula were put out on the grounds of the National Museum in Ueno as a way of welcoming in the Year-of-the-Sheep.


by Avi Landau

This past Wednesday night was cold and wet. Still, through the patter of falling raindrops,  I could hear, on and off, distant thuds and crackles. I had a notion of what this was – and I checked the lunar calendar I have up on my wall. My hunch was correct-  I was hearing  members of Tsukuba`s Chinese community celebrating their New Year in the traditional way: with fireworks. They were outside braving the elements so that they could properly welcome in, what according to the traditional Oriental Zodiac is the Year-of-the Sheep.

And though the Japanese stopped using the Chinese calendar back in 1872 (after having run their lives by it for well over a thousand years), they still link each year to the traditional cycle of twelve animals ( as motifs on New Year`s cards, E-ma wish boards and New Year`s Zodiac dolls, and especially as one`s birth year sign- those born this year will be Sheep!)

Out of all the different ‘series’ that I have written for this blog over the years, probably my favorite to research has been my annual ‘Zodiac Animal and its Role in Japanese History and Culture’ articles. I have always posted these at the Chinese New Year (usually sometime in February) instead of the beginning of January, since there are so many other things I have to write about at the end and beginning of the  year.

Zodiac figurine

A Zodiac figurine on sale at Seibu Department Store at the end of last year. While in China the sheep (ram) is a symbol of power and the male force, for the Japanese it represents goodness, gentleness and being part of ‘the herd’.

What surprised me in preparing for this year`s article on ‘Sheep in Japanese History and Culture’ was the LACK of any real exciting angles like those I had found studying the other zodiac animals. Its funny that even the tiger, which has never lived in the wild in Japan, and the dragon, an imaginary beast, have an immensely larger cultural presence in Japan than the sheep. This is something which should  be surprising for westerners, Middle-easterners, and many other Asians- for whom sheep are not only important sources of food and wool but also have great cultural and religious significance

There was so little I could dig up on sheep in Japan, that I was considering calling this year`s Zodiac Animal piece ‘The Absence of Sheep in Japanese Culture and History’.

Nezu Museum

Stone sheep (ram) from the Korean Peninsula on the grounds of  the Nezu Museum in Aoyama, Tokyo.

In fact, one of the first historical references to the Japanese people, the 3rd century Chinese ‘Wei Chronicle’ which the Japanese call the GISHI WAJIN DEN (魏志倭人伝), makes a point of saying that in the Land of YAMATAI (Yamato) there are no sheep!

If you have spent a summer in Japan, you can surely understand why this is not sheep country- the heat and humdity are just too extreme. To illustrate the point from my own experience, when I first started teaching a weekly class at Ibaraki University`s Agriculture Faculty, there used to be sheep on campus. A few years later they were gone- every one of them. What happened? Skin disease – the humidity was just too much for them.

So the Japanese did without woolen clothes- they had silk and hemp! And as for meat, for many centuries they didn`t eat most four-legged animals. And now that they have become carnivores most find mutton too smelly for their tastes. In fact, it seems to me that except for in the northern island of Hokkaido, not only beef, pork and chicken but even horse meat is more popular as a food than mutton*. In terms of religion as well, other animals, especially horses and cows, served as offerings or important symbols.

In other words, sheep could not do well in Japan (south of Hokkaido), but the Japanese did just fine without them.


Nezu Museum

On the grounds of the Nezu Museum

That does not mean there were no efforts made to introduce to introduce sheep to Japan in ancient times. The Nihon Shoki (720 AD), the second oldest extant Japanese text, tells us that just a few centuries after the GISHI WAJIN DEN had been written, in the year 599 AD, Empress Suiko received gifts from the Kingdom of Paekche, in Korea. These included camels, donkeys and TWO SHEEP !

Later, from the sixth month of the year 939 AD there is a record of court nobles observing sheep at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. They commented that what they had seen was ‘quite rare indeed.

An extant 12th century diary entry by Kyu-jo Kanezane (on the 8th day of the 12th month of 1185) states that ‘sheep have white hair which feels like the fuzz on reeds’. He also said that they `like to eat bamboo, loquat leaves- and even paper!’


Image of a sheep, a gift from the continent on the occassion of the founding of the Todai-Ji Temple in Nara, kept at the Sho-so-in Imperial Storehouse.

Centuries later, a cookbook dated 1692 mentions that ‘ recently sheep have been brought over from China, but no one raises them in this country.’

Other  Edo Period books on cuisine, though, insist that there were certain aristocrats who had a few sheep.

One of the people who unsuccessfully tried to breed sheep was the polymath Hiraga Gennai (平賀源内 1724-1780). In Nagasaki he had obtained a few of the animals from the Dutch trading post at Dejima. He thought that developing the wool industry would benefit the country- but alas, his scheme ended in an embarrassing failure (must have been the climate again!)


TAGO HI monument

The TAGO HI (多胡碑) monument in Gunma Prefecture was erected in the year 711 AD, making it one of the 3 oldest stone monuments in Japan. The Chinese character for SHEEP 羊 appears on this stone (in the second line from the right, on the bottom). Scholars are not exactly sure of what it signifies but there are theories that it is the name of a man, or an ethnic group, given control of that area- Tago County in present day Gunma Prefecture.

Meanwhile, the existence of ancient stone monuments, as well as records in the Imperial Sho-so-in Storehouse bearing the Chinese character for Sheep (羊) has posed a mystery for scholars. While most say it represents a mans name, others suggest it refers to an ethnic group which came over from the continent to settle in Japan.


 Late Edo Period painting

Late Edo Period painting by Shimada Gentan of Ko Shohei turning the stones into sheep.

In painting and the decorative arts, sheep are only very rarely used as motifs in Japan. In fact the appearance of sheep in a picture would probably give one the impression that the work was not Japanese.

There was one theme that was given attention by a few Japanese artists, including the great great Sesshu. Its the Chinese story of Shohei and the Sheep. It goes like this: at the age of 15, a boy named KO SHOHEI (黄初平) leaves home with his sheep, never to return. Decades later, his brother goes searching for him. He ends up finding Shohei in the mountains- a full-fledged ascetic! He asks where the sheep are. Shohei says “Over there!” but all his brother can see are boulders. Shohei raises his arms – and the stones turn into living sheep!

In China, sheep were apparently symbols of the hermit`s life, and that must be why artists who lived in an age when Japan was replete with Mountain Ascetics (YAMABUSHI) would be interested in the story of Ko Shohei.

Meiji Period book

Illustration in a Meiji Period book

Another somewhat interesting debate which has been going on for centuries is the origin of the Jaoanese reading of the Chinese character for sheep. The question is- if there were no sheep in Japan, why does that animal have an original Japanese name?

There are several theories. The one which struck me most reflects the fact that until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Chinese Zodiac was not only used for a cycle of 12 years, but also for 12 directions, 12 months, 12 days, and 12 hours of the day! The hour of the sheep (未の時) was in the afternoon (todays 2 or 3 pm) – when the sun reaches its turning pointing. Thus, the sheep of that hour was HI (日), the sun- TSUJI (辻), cross-roads. In other words HITSUJI (日辻) – the sun at its crossroad.

Sounds good enough for me. I buy it !

Nezu Museum

A Chinese double-ram bronze at the Nezu Museum


From the Brittish Museum

Another extremely rare Chinese double-ram bronze on loan to the Nezu from the British Museum for the beginning of the Year-of-the-Sheep.

The only form of ‘worship’ that seems to have developed around sheep in Japan in the one related to its being one of the 12 zodiac animals. Because of its inclusion in that exclusive menagerie the sheep is considered a LUCKY ANIMAL. Several auspicious Chinese/Japanese characters use the one for sheep (羊) as a major component. There is ZEN (善) which means GOOD, and UTSUKUSHI (美) which means beautiful.

But for me, the most significant character related to 羊 is YO- (洋) which means foreign or western. That is exactly what the sheep is for the Japanese- something foreign- even more so than the tiger.

Potiron no Mori

Potiron no Mori is a theme park farm not far from Tsukuba (about half-way to Narita airport- tun left!). It can be lots of fun for the kids- and its a good place to get into the spirit of the Year-of-the-Sheep !

But alas, I think its time to stop for now ! It seems that writng about sheep is having the same effect on me as COUNTING SHEEP – and I had better post this before I fall into a deep sleep………

Hitsuji Jinja

Hitsuji Jinja (The Sheep Shrine) in Nagoya- one of only a less than a handfull Sheep-themed shrines. Though there are sheep motifs (such as the sheep guardian shown here) the name of these shrines actually comes from the name of a legendary personage- HITSUJI DAIYU (羊太夫) – whose stories were spawned by the TAGOHI stone monument mentioned above.

Have a great Year-of-the-Sheep!


To be continued…………………..

* When visiting Hokkaido, mny Japanese try a grilled mutton dish called Jingis kan (Genghis Khan)- and I am sure that in Tokyo there are may YAKINIKU restaurants that serve it.

Another reason mutton is not commonly eaten is its price. I remember how I regretted promising to make a batch of Guinness stew for my friends. I paid nearly 10,000 yen for the meat alone


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