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Few people will have been sorry to see the end of 2020, a year characterized by the global COVID-19 pandemic. For those who follow the Chinese new year, the close of the tragic and tumultuous Year of the Rat is fast approaching, too.

Feb. 12 marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox. The second animal of the Chinese zodiac, the ox denotes the hard work, positivity and honesty that will be manifested in all of us in the coming 12 months, according to astrologers.

Jupiter Lai, a Hong-Kong based Chinese and Western astrologer, says the ox is “grounded, loyal, gentle and trustworthy.”

Following the Chinese calendar, which rotates in 60-year cycles based on 12 earthly branches, each represented by an animal year, and five element years — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — 2021 is the Year of the Metal Ox. On a deeper level, each earthly branch is characterized by a yin or yang force and an element.

In the Year of the Rat, the force was the fast, hard, active yang while the element was water, which Lai says is known for “changing all the time.” The ox’s earthly branch, meanwhile, is associated with yin, which is slow, soft and passive. Its element is earth, representing “stability and nourishment. It is believed these additional associations and the characteristics of the ox have great synergy and are mostly favorable.

A statue of an ox sits in the grounds of Fuji Omuro Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi Prefecture. | KEITH CROWLEY / TOKYOFOTOS
A statue of an ox sits in the grounds of Fuji Omuro Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi Prefecture. | KEITH CROWLEY / TOKYOFOTOS

And the ox’s good attributes are not only found in the Chinese zodiac. The animal has been represented in religion, art, literature and popular culture throughout east Asia for centuries. Much of the high regard it holds is due to its importance in agriculture.

In China, it is considered an animal of strength that is associated with harvests and fertility. In years gone by, people created an ox using mud and beat it with sticks as part of a new year ritual to mark the start of spring. It was also believed that placing a metal statue of an ox at the bottom of a river could prevent a flood. The ancient Chinese art of feng shui, which harmonizes people with their environment using energy forces, also regards the animal as auspicious, which has given the ox a reputation for granting wishes.

The ox is one of the most common animals featured in Korean proverbs. The imagery is overwhelmingly positive, portraying the animal with traits such as diligence, gratitude and loyalty. It is seen as altruistic as it serves mankind.

One example is “It is a bad plowman that quarrels with his ox,” which is akin to the French proverb “Bad workmen will never find a good tool,” whose use dates from the 13th century, and the later English version, “A bad workman blames his tools.”

As peasant families in ancient times are understood to have often sold their ox to pay for their son’s education, the ox is also presented as an object of great value — “those who steal a pin will steal an ox.”

Kyosai Kawanabe’s “Buffalo and Herdsman” (circa 1887) | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Kyosai Kawanabe’s “Buffalo and Herdsman” (circa 1887) | PUBLIC DOMAIN

With strong representations of the ox in China and on the Korean Peninsula, it is likely that positive imagery related to the ox was transferred to Japan over time.

But Japan’s relationship with the ox is also rooted in Buddhism. The animal is represented in texts, statues and other religious imagery and celebrated in events throughout the year.

According to Mikael Bauer, an assistant professor of Japanese religions (Buddhism) at McGill University, the ox presented in Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism (which is similar but not the same as Buddhism) is derived from earlier images in Daoism, a religious philosophical practice in China.

In Buddhism, he says, the ox represents “Buddha nature,” the fundamental nature of all beings that includes the assumption that anyone can gain enlightenment.

“You often see images of ox-herding in Japanese Buddhism, where the ox herder represents us — struggling, pulling the ox on a path of religious praxis,” he says. “One could say this is our path, our life, on which we have to realize that we already possess Buddha nature.”

One example of such imagery is in “Ten Scenes with an Ox,” a Zen Buddhist parable depicted with color illustrations and explanatory text. The earliest known Japanese copy is in a scroll inscribed with the date 1278. Representations of the paintings, which tell the story of a boy who finds his ox after an exhaustive search, are often displayed in Zen temples in Japan as well as China and on the Korean Peninsula.

Sylvain Jolivalt is an author specializing in Japanese history and legends. | COURTESY OF SYLVAIN JOLIVALT
Sylvain Jolivalt is an author specializing in Japanese history and legends. | COURTESY OF SYLVAIN JOLIVALT

Zen Buddhism specialist Martine Batchelor says the parable depicts “a young ox herder whose quest leads him to tame, train and transform his heart and mind, a process that is represented by subduing the ox.”

The parable struck a deep chord with society, inspiring recreations in literature and art. Kawanabe Kyosai’s painting “Buffalo and Herdsman,” which dates from 1887, is but one piece of art that draws on the story.

According to experts, it was not unusual for animals to be used to convey Zen Buddhist philosophy, but perhaps none are portrayed so positively as the ox. In the 1770 painting created by Ito Jakuchu, “Two Gibbons Reaching for the Moon,” for example, the gibbons convey the negative “human habit of trying to attain the unreal rather than spiritual sustenance.”

Sylvain Jolivalt, an author specializing in Japanese history and legends, says one of the foremost events related to oxen in Japan is the ushi matsuri (cow festival) held annually on Oct. 12 at Korui-ji, said to be the oldest temple in Kyoto. The ritual involves a priest donning a white costume and white mask to embody the god Matarajin and riding around the temple on a black cow. The priest then dismounts and climbs onto a wooden platform from which he addresses the gods.

“He reads (the message) to the gods over and over to ask them to grant peace and an abundant harvest, and to scatter away bad illnesses,” Jolivalt says.

The meaning of the ox in Chinese astrology even influenced the construction of temples in Japan in ancient times due to the links between Chinese astrology and Buddhism.

Jeffrey Kotyk, a researcher of foreign astrology in medieval east Asia at the University of British Columbia, says every branch of the Chinese zodiac is connected to a time of day and direction. The ox's time is 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., while its direction is northeast — the 'origin of bad influences.' | COURTESY OF JEFFREY KOTYK
Jeffrey Kotyk, a researcher of foreign astrology in medieval east Asia at the University of British Columbia, says every branch of the Chinese zodiac is connected to a time of day and direction. The ox’s time is 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., while its direction is northeast — the ‘origin of bad influences.’ | COURTESY OF JEFFREY KOTYK

According to Jeffrey Kotyk, a researcher of foreign astrology in medieval east Asia at the University of British Columbia, each earthly branch of the Chinese zodiac is connected to a time of day and a direction. The ox’s time is 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., while its direction is northeast.

During these hours, it is believed that “even plants doze” and “ghosts and goblins appear to scare men away,” Jolivalt says. He surmises that the awakening of the spirits in the hours of the ox is linked to the fact that the direction of the ox is called the “Gate of Demons.”

In Chinese astrology, the northeast (the cardinal direction shared by the ox and the tiger) is “considered the origin of bad influences,” Jolivalt says. It is for this reason, he adds, that temples were built to the northeast of Japan’s capitals, to protect them from harm. Nara was protected by Todai-ji temple, while Kamakura was guarded by Egara-tenjin shrine. Kyoto had Enryaku-ji temple, while Tokyo had Kanei-ji temple.

The connections between the animals, spirits and directions even resulted in the oni trolls of Japanese folklore to feature the horns of the ox and the skin of the tiger in their loincloth in a nod to the ox and the tiger, he says.

Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism, also venerates and respects the ox. The animal is associated with Sugawa no Michizane, a scholar, poet and courtier of the ninth century. He was successful and rose to gain considerable power, but was ultimately expelled from court due to political differences.

Michizane was born in 845, the Year of the Ox. According to legend, a faithful ox was his transport of choice to go into exile. Michizane is said to have been fond of oxen as they had protected him from assassins at one time. It is also held that after his death, the ox carrying his remains in his funeral procession stopped midway along the route. When the ox refused to go any further, people built a shrine on the spot where the ox halted to honor Michizane.

A series of disasters following Michizane’s death, including plague, repeated lightning strikes and floods, prompted the ruling class to attempt to appease his assumed vengeful spirit by deifying him. He became Tenjin — the god of academics, scholarship and calligraphy — and his spirit was enshrined in shrines called Tenman-gu.

Today, there are estimated to be about 14,000 such shrines in Japan. One of the main ones is Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka Prefecture, which is built over Michizane’s grave.

“As a thunder god,” Jolivalt says, “Tenjin-sama is also praised to invoke rainfall, so he is considered a god of agriculture.” This is another link to the hardworking ox of the fields of ancient times.

Oxen or cows are regarded as messengers of Tenjin, which has resulted in the proliferation of statues of oxen in Tenman-gu shrines. Many statues are lying down as a reminder of the ox that rested during Michizane’s funeral procession.

A statue of an ox sits in the grounds of Hirakawa Tenman-gu near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. | KATHRYN WORTLEY
A statue of an ox sits in the grounds of Hirakawa Tenman-gu near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. | KATHRYN WORTLEY

Tenman-gu shrines are among the most popular shrines to visit for school and university students ahead of sitting important exams. Thousands of children, young people and their parents every year pray to Tenjin due to his association with learning.

Many of these shrines heavily feature the ox, but cows are present at other shrines in Japan, too.

This is due to “the old belief that cows have the power to cure disease,” says the spokesperson of the Association of Shinto Shrines. “Visitors who stroke the part of their body affected by their ailment and then stroke the same place on the statue of the cow will have their ailment cured.”

Popular spots for these nade-ushi (rubbing cows) in Tokyo include Hirakawa Tenman-gu near the Imperial Palace and Yushima Tenjin in Bunkyo Ward.

In the centuries that followed the deification of Tenjin, events and activities that involved asking the ox or cow to provide a good harvest and ward off disease spread across the country.

Until the destruction of Shakuzenji Castle in Osaka Prefecture in the 16th century, an almost life-size clay and wood ox was built and celebrated annually on July 6 and 7 in a ritual appealing for rainfall and a good harvest. Many customs are also still practiced today.

Meanwhile, in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, the akabeko (red cow) is both a local craft and treasure.

These wood and papier-mache toys featuring a bobbing head are based on a real cow used to build a local temple in the ninth century, according to legend. Over time, people came to believe that akabeko could drive off smallpox and other diseases.

A statue of an ox sits in the grounds of Fuji Omuro Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi Prefecture. | KEITH CROWLEY / TOKYOFOTOS
A statue of an ox sits in the grounds of Fuji Omuro Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi Prefecture. | KEITH CROWLEY / TOKYOFOTOS

While regular shrine goers may be accustomed to recognizing cow imagery at shrines, 2021 will see shrines across Japan make an additional salute to the cow, according to the Association of Shinto Shrines. In keeping with the long-held practice of celebrating the new year and the animal associated with it as per the Chinese zodiac, shrines will display images related to the Year of the Ox.

People enjoying hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year) in 2021 can expect to see decorations like ox-adorned ema (traditional Shinto plaques); there is a giant one on display at Kashihara-jingu shrine in Nara Prefecture. Visitors can also pick up their own plaques — which typically include an image of the animal associated with the year — on which they write a message or wish. The plaque is then hung within the shrine grounds. Auspicious items to keep or wear in 2021 are also available in exchange for a fixed donation.

The Association of Shinto Shrines says celebrating the start of the Year of the Ox with these items is due to the “customs in Japan derived from the Japanese culture of following the zodiac” rather than activities associated with religious beliefs.

For many people, putting out figurines or decorations related to the upcoming animal year involves little thought; it is as synonymous with new year as eating mochi rice cakes. In 2021, those decorations will mark the Year of the Ox, a year with significant, deep associations across many areas.

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