There are many ways to tell time: the sundial, the 12-hour clock and the 24-hour clock. But there is a much more interesting way to tell time too, one the Japanese used in ancient times: by animal.
The animal clock is based on the Chinese zodiac where all 12 animals in the zodiac have been assigned two hours of the day.
“Meet me in the fourth division of the hour of the horse” is a much more interesting way to say “Meet me between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.” Each set of two hours has four divisions, making each division 30 minutes long. The fourth division of the hour of the horse is not as exact as saying “12:45,” giving people more time to make their appointments. Makes you wonder why the Japanese ever abandoned this system.
Here is a short explanation of how to tell animal time, with some hints on how to remember which animal covers which hours of the day.
At the beginning of the Chinese zodiac is the rat, who has been assigned the hours of 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. No surprise there — rats like to come out at night after everyone has gone to sleep. Initiators of “mysterious kitchen cabinet activities,” rats and mice are responsible for much of what goes scratch-scratch and bump-bump in the night.
The ox, or cow, has been given the two-hour period from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. I have heard this is not such a good time because this time of the night is scary. So if you are told to meet in the second division of the hour of the ox, you’re probably taking part in some shady activity! But there is logic to why the ox has been assigned these hours. Oxen are traditionally work animals, so were too busy working in the fields during the day to be given extra duties then. So, they take care of their two hours on the night shift instead.
The tiger has taken the hours of 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Perhaps this is where the term “sleeping tiger” comes from: Sleeping but ready to pounce on the dawning of a new day. By the fourth division of the hour of the tiger, the tiger is hungry and starts to hunt prey. Since tigers are very fast runners, this could explain why when we wake up in the morning, the night seems to have passed by so quickly.
The rabbit, known for how quickly it multiplies, is up early every morning studying math from 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. By the time all of his divisions are finished, the world is up and hoping.
The dragon is the most powerful animal in the zodiac. It is also considered sacred because it comes from the heavens. The dragon is responsible for the two hours from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. If you’re a morning person, you’re probably up to meet the first division of the dragon every morning.
The snake oversees the hours of 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., the time when the lazy serpents leave their burrows. Perhaps the snake in modern times indicates the long lines of traffic already in place by the first division of the hour of the snake in most of the big cities in the world.
The horse has a very pleasant part of the day: the lunch hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The horse is the origin of many food idioms such as “He eats like a horse.” Lunch time is definitely the time to either “put on the feed bag” or “head to the food trough.”
The sheep has jurisdiction over the afternoon hours from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. This is not the most exciting part of anyone’s day and is the most likely two-hour stint to induce sleep without having to count sheep.
The hour of the monkey is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., when most people are wrapping up the monkey business at work to head home for the evening. If you’re lucky, you’re out the door by the end of the last division of the hour of the monkey.
The rooster, or chicken hour, is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. when most chickens return to their roost. By the second division of the hour of the chicken, you’re probably feeling a bit peckish. By the end of the fourth division, you may have even ingested some of the bird yourself.
The dog does the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift. This is probably because the dog has so many duties during the daytime such as sniffing out stray scents, barking at errant sounds and loyally marking his territory, that only in the evening has he settled down enough to be able to keep one eye on two hours of activity.
Lastly, our porcine friend the pig presides over the hours of 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Almost everyone enjoys a few last grunts and snorts before bedtime.
If we ever do go back to using animal time, I think we should modernize the animal clock by using a few wild-card animal substitutes. The hour of the turtle, for example, could be used instead of the hour of the rabbit when you wanted time to slow down a bit to sleep in. When you want to go out and party, rather than meeting your friends in the third division of the hour of the pig, it would be much more fun to meet them in the third division of the hour of the tanuki. And wouldn’t it be more fun to eat kitsune udon in the hour of the fox?