The past two years have brought more tigers than usual to our screens, with the rise to fame of Netflix documentary “Tiger King” and its subsequent spinoffs, and 2022 is set to bring the big cat front and center once again.
Early February will see the Year of the Ox draw to a close and the Year of the Tiger begin. The slow, gentle and hardworking nature of the ox, which manifested the mood of 2021, will be replaced by the speed, strength and power of the tiger in 2022.
According to the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, whereby opposite forces come together in harmony, the transition from a yin ox to a yang tiger should be palpable.
The active and motivated tiger is “very different” from the slow, soft and passive ox, says Hong Kong-based Chinese and Western astrologer Jupiter Lai. The overall energy level of 2022 will therefore be higher than it was in 2021.
“This year, people are gaining back some vitality and strength,” Lai says. “They are more determined to achieve their goals.”
Much like how a tiger responds to the world, the upcoming 12 months can be expected to evoke self-confidence and enthusiasm as well as competence and courage in the face of challenges.
The tiger is characterized as being tough when facing adversity, with a strong sense of justice and a commitment to the greater good, again generating a positive imagery for 2022. However, Lai notes that the animal’s fierce hunting instinct may also generate competition and conflict among people.
Looking deeper, following the Chinese calendar that 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 — 2022 is the Year of the Water Tiger. While the Year of the Metal Ox’s element was earth, representing stability and nourishment, 2022’s element is wood, specifically yang wood.
“Wood is the only element that will grow, which signifies this is a year for growth and improvement,” Lai says. “The virtues signified by wood are benevolence and generosity, so these are the virtues we can manifest this year.”
The combination of wood and water — again, a yang force — in this Year of the Tiger is significant as “the water nourishes the wood, allowing it to grow,” Lai says. This indicates there “will be more support and resources for the Wood (Tiger) to grow, so people can look for help whenever they need it.”
In short, the alignment of this zodiac year’s components is auspicious in delivering fortitude and restoration in 2022. Furthermore, the tiger alone has long conjured positive images of power in East Asia, making it a particularly significant year for some.
“There have never been tigers living in Japan, but Japan inherited the Chinese concept of the tiger as the king of all beasts,” says Sylvain Jolivalt, an author specializing in Japanese history and legends. For this reason, he adds, the tiger tends to be associated with warriors and depicted with stripes on his head forming the Chinese character for king.
According to Chinese legend, after the Jade Emperor’s race to determine the order of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, the monkey put these stripes on the tiger to appease him for being only the third-fastest animal to win the contest.
The East Asian concept of the brave tiger as a champion or protector has been prevalent since ancient times. Japanese stories about the tiger can even be found in some of the country’s oldest works, including the “Chronicles of Japan,” or “Nihon Shoki,” which date from the eighth century.
In geomancy, the system of conceptualizing physical and spiritual environments, the White Tiger is one of the four mythological creatures (including the Azure Dragon, the Vermillion Bird and the Black Tortoise) that guard each of the four cardinal directions.
According to Choi Seonju, head of the Asia Arts Division at the National Museum of Korea, one of the earliest depictions of the tiger in Japan relates to this association. The White Tiger is painted on the burial chamber wall inside Takamatsuzuka Tomb, which was built in Nara Prefecture between the late seventh and early eighth century.
Similarly, the tiger and the dragon have long been regarded as auspicious creatures with great power. Viewed as the ultimate pair, they are frequently depicted alongside each other in Chinese Buddhism, feng shui, art and philosophy. While the tiger is considered master of the beasts, the dragon is considered master of the skies.
According to an ancient Chinese proverb, dragons control the clouds while tigers control the wind. This natural harmony is thought to create fertility and peace.
Evidence of these beliefs can be found in verses of Chinese classics, such as Yi Qing, which state that “dragon growls, clouds arise; tiger roars, winds form.” When these texts reached Japan, they influenced Japanese society and culture, Jolivalt says.
One example is the practice of people praying to the tiger or performing dances to the tiger (tora-mai or tora-odori) in an effort to prevent natural disasters. This custom was particularly common along the Pacific coast of Tohoku, and many areas continue to hold tiger-related festivals to this day.
In Kami, Miyagi Prefecture, local residents have been performing the Fire Protection Tiger Dance Festival for more than 650 years. The event began due to the prevalence of strong winds that rushed down the Ou mountains in the dry spring and summer months, causing wildfires.
Today, residents dressed as tigers move carefully from rooftop to rooftop to bless each home and pray for the tiger to control the local winds by performing dances. Tiger-themed floats accompanied by music and dancing also proceed through the town.
Other towns holding tiger dances for protection include Kamaishi and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture, Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture and Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Over the centuries, Shinto shrines have also adopted some activities related to the power of the tiger. Jolivalt points to the Grand Festival of Hachinohe Sansha Taisai in Aomori Prefecture, held from July 31 to Aug. 4, which features portable shrines and tiger dances. Any spectator whose head is ceremoniously bitten by a dancing tiger is said to be blessed with good health.
The tiger is also one of the animals, along with dragons and foxes, chosen by Shintoism to be depicted as komainu, the pair of lion-like statues guarding the entrance to inner shrines.
Similarly, the tiger has significance in Buddhism due to its relationship to the time of day. According to Chinese astrology, the 12 zodiac animals represent different times of day and different days of the month as well as years. The tiger’s hours are between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., the time when farmers are said to rise.
Legend has it that Bishamonten, the god of good fortune, appeared to Prince Shotoku during these hours of the tiger, some 1,400 years ago. Not only that, it was the Day of the Tiger and Year of the Tiger, too. Prince Shotoku was praying ahead of an important battle and Bishamonten responded by sharing the secrets of victory with him. This allowed Prince Shotoku to defeat his enemies and go on to promote Buddhism in Japan.
To express his gratitude, Prince Shotoku established Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji temple atop Mount Shigi in Nara Prefecture, where he witnessed Bishamonten. Since then, tigers have been symbolic guardians of this temple and are still represented through the grounds to this day. Visitors can see a giant 6-meter-long tiger statue, numerous paper representations of the tiger and a tiger tunnel with a gaping mouth.
Reflecting the role that the tiger played in this encounter, two tigers were chosen as the komainu at Bishamonten Zenkokuji temple in Kagurazaka, Tokyo. This structure was first built in 1595 by order of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was a fan of tigers. He commissioned artists from the prestigious Kano school to paint the animals on the inner walls of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan’s capital at that time. The tigers were featured solely in rooms used to welcome high-ranking visitors as one way to express the power of the ruler.
The artists had never seen a tiger, so they relied on the stories of adventurers who had seen them in China. Since tigers were typically described as giant cat-like creatures, many of the depictions show them in cute poses similar to domesticated cats, but it is said the legend of the tiger at that time would have allowed the castle dwellers to succeed in their dual purpose of impressing and intimidating their guests.
For the same reason, numerous paintings of tigers can be found in Nagoya Castle’s Honmaru Goten Palace. Its Ichi-no-ma and Ni-no-ma reception rooms for VIPs are adorned with depictions of tigers, which were considered male at that time, and leopards, which were considered female. All were created using descriptions from books and animal skins from China.
Edo Castle and many Zen Buddhism temples also called on artists to draw from tiger imagery to decorate their walls, screens and sliding doors, often alongside dragons due to their historic pairing. This kind of art was particularly popular among samurai as the dragon and tiger were believed to symbolize their military might, Seonju says.
“The dynamic composition of paired folding screens depicting a dragon and tiger staring at each other from each side was considered appropriate as an interior decoration,” he says.
Another reason for this frequent theme for paintings in wealthy warriors’ interiors, says Jolivalt, is that the tiger and dragon were “frequently used to describe two heroes or great men who fight each other.” The most famous pair were warlords Takeda Shigen, who was known as the “Dragon of Kai Province,” and Uesugi Kenshin, who was known as the “Tiger of Echigo Province.”
Meanwhile, in geography, the relationship between each earthly branch of the Chinese zodiac and a direction has influenced the development of some of Japan’s major cities.
As northeast is considered the origin of kimon (demon gate) from where bad influences enter, temples were built to the northeast of Japan’s capitals as a means of protection, including Todai Temple in Nara and Enryaku Temple in Kyoto. Jolivalt says the tiger-skinned loin cloth and bovine horns of the oni (demon) of Japanese folklore are a nod to the connection between these evil influences and the direction of the tiger and ox.
According to Jeffrey Kotyk, a researcher of foreign astrology in medieval East Asia at the University of British Columbia, the tiger and the ox share the cardinal direction northeast.
The most well-known reference to the tiger that remains in Japan today, though, is perhaps Tokyo’s Toranomon. It was named after the southernmost gate of Edo Castle, what was known as the Tiger’s Gate, but the reason remains unclear. Some say the district received its moniker because of a cherry blossom tree at the gate whose branches resembled a tiger’s tail. Others say the Tora-no-Mon gate was named before samurai departed for battle, in recognition of the power and ferocity of the tiger. Still another theory is that the gate was the attempted entry point of a tiger that had been gifted to Japan from the Korean Peninsula. On realizing the cage was too big to pass through, the gate was knocked down, rebuilt and subsequently renamed.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that the tiger has long been in the hearts and minds of Japanese people. In some way or another, the Year of the Tiger and the associated astrology and beliefs about the big cat have influenced the religious, political, social and cultural landscape of Japan for centuries.
This year, it is fitting that Setsubun — a time when oni are symbolically cast out from homes and good fortune is invited in — falls on Feb. 3, the last day of the Year of the Ox. As people “cleanse” their homes and welcome in luck to mark the start of spring, they are also preparing to mark the start of the Year of the Tiger — a year set to be characterized by strength, generosity and growth.
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