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December 31, 2016

The Year of the Rooster

2017 is the Year of the Rooster (toridoshi) in Japan (also translated as cock or chicken; the term denotes general barnyard fowl), the tenth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac. The Year of the Rooster is represented by the Earthly Branch character 酉. The rooster is the only bird in the zodiac.

[Roosters by Ito Jakuchu - image from Wikipedia]

As is written in We Japanese, it is believed by the Japanese that the rooster has five virtues:
  • Its comb represents civilization
  • Its strong feet denote military strength
  • With an enemy it fights well, demonstrating courage
  • It calls friends out of goodwill
  • Watching for the dawn, it is faithful
In other words, the Year of the Rooster is generally considered as a lucky year and persons born in that year are according to fortune tellers generally intelligent and kind by nature.

[Shokoku - photo from Wikipedia]

Already since the dawn of history, there have been roosters and chickens in Japan. Although Japanese breeds now have been crossbred with western strains, there are also 30 breeds of what is known as the indigenous "Japanese rooster." The majority of these are not raised for meat or eggs, but are kept by fanciers as pets. Here are some of the best known ones:
  • jidori, an indigenous, primitive breed that resembles the red jungle fowl of SE Asia; it has a red body, with black tail and black breast;
  • shamo, developed from a game breed in Thailand; raised for cockfighting. The meat is also of excellent quality. 
  • shokoku, introduced from China in the Heian period; its feathers are silvery, golden or white and it has a long, flowing tail and an elegant posture. Was kept in shrines as a sacred breed.
  • onagadori, a striking, long-tailed breed developed in Tosa (now Kochi Pref.) during the Edo period. It is silvery, white or brown and its tail feathers, which grow longer every year, can reach 8 meters. They are therefore kept in special, elevated cages.
  • chabo, a diminutive chicken with short legs and a large head. Plumage colors vary widely.  
  • minohiki, a decorative breed whose neck and tail feathers are said to resemble a straw raincoat (mino).
  • ukokkei, fowl with a fluffy plumage like silk; can be white or black. Originates in China.

[Onagadori - photo from Wikipedia]

The rooster has played a prominent role in ancient Japanese culture. The bird came from China to Japan via Korea in the Jomon period (10,500-300 BCE). It is represented in haniwa pottery figures from the Kofun period (300-710 CE). The cock also plays an important role in the myth about the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. When the Sun Goddess retired to a cave in anger at the violence of her brother, Susano-o, and the world was steeped in darkness, the cock's crow outside the cave made the goddess think that the day had dawned even without her presence (due to a rival?) - and this was how she was lured out of the cave by the other gods. At the Grand Shrine of Ise the cock is regarded as a messenger of the Sun Goddess, and in the shrine's precincts one often comes across freely roaming roosters.

In Japan there are many interesting folk beliefs about the rooster: its crowing at daybreak is believed to drive away the evil spirits of darkness that could roam freely during the night. The rooster has therefore become a talisman against evil spirits. (In Western countries, by the way, the cock is also a symbol of watchfulness, reason why it is often placed on weather vanes.)

In the Heian period, the court held regular cock fights, a sport which later also became popular among commoners. In later periods, certain decorative breeds of roosters were the subject of famous paintings (as the one by Ito Jakuchu above) and woodblock prints. 

What about chicken as food? It appears chicken was eaten in Japan until the Buddhist injunction against meat, which was proclaimed by successive emperors when ascending the throne since the 7th c., increasingly became stronger. So from the 10th century on also commoners virtually stopped eating meat (with the exception of fish), although the Japanese never were a fundamentalist people where religious injunctions were concerned. Besides a Buddhist, I suppose there was also a Shinto reason: meat from dead or slaughtered animals was considered as impure. But from the 16th c. on, this injunction again became gradually looser and after contact with the Portuguese and Dutch some Japanese also started eating chicken. But - like the rare consumption of other kinds of meat - it was more something for sick people in order to regain strength than part of normal cuisine. There was no meat industry in Japan until the Meiji period. In the case of roosters, we should also take into account that this bird was regarded as the messenger of Amaterasu and therefore sacred; even chicken eggs were avoided until the 15th c. (quail eggs were eaten instead). 

After Japan opened its doors to the West, the eating of meat and chicken became more common, but all the same remained relatively small scale. In the Meiji period a chicken cuisine was established in the Kansai. As Japanese chickens were not as rich in meat as Western strains, farmers mostly switched away from indigenous chickens. But the production of chicken meat remained low and it was only after WWII that this bird became a popular dish, after the introduction of American broilers. From that period also date now so popular chicken dishes as yakitori and tori no kara-age. A recent Japanese custom is to eat chicken at Christmas, a "new tradition" brought about in the early 1970s by a successful promotional campaign of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
[Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel), as well as the Japanese and English Wikipedia]