Not so long ago when I was in college, I took a class about Japanese culture and society. In one of our books, there was a graph about Japanese birth rates that looked like this:
I saw the giant dip in birth rates in 1966 and was confused. I flipped around a couple of pages and didn’t see any explanation. Was it some sort of error? Was there a big natural disaster that I didn’t know about? What exactly happened in 1966? Turns out that the explanation was stranger than I could even imagine.
The Other Chinese Zodiac
In Western society, we don’t have too many superstitions associated with dates; there’s Friday the 13, but that’s about it. In East Asian societies, there’s a whole lot more superstitious dates.
We've written about the Japanese calendar before, but date-based superstitions don't stop there. The Chinese Zodiac still holds more sway over the Japanese mindset than people realize.
Most people know about the Chinese Zodiac calendar and the 12 animals that comprise it; most people probably even know which animal they are (for the record, I’m a snake). East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia observe the Chinese Zodiac, at least on some level.
What lots of people don’t know is that there is another cycle that goes along with the Chinese zodiac. This second cycle goes through five elements: fire, wood, earth, metal, and water, and combines with the first cycle to make combinations like earth snake or metal dragon. Each of these combinations occurs once ever sixty years.
Some combinations have great associations, but others have very negative connotations. The most infamous of all being the Fire Horse (hinoeuma 丙午).
The Infamous Fire Horse
People born during the year of the Fire Horse are notorious for being bad luck. People born during a Fire Horse years are said to be irresponsible, rebellious, and overall bad news.
And for some reason, women are said to be especially dangerous Fire Horses. They supposedly sap their family’s finances, neglect their children, and drive their father and husband to an early grave.
This myth is so powerful that it seriously affects how people behave. Men might avoid marrying a Fire Horse, and families avoid giving birth to Fire Horse children.
In 1966, the year of the Fire Horse, people in Japan (and elsewhere in Asia) really, really tried not to have kids, either because they thought that the Fire Horse myth was true, or because they were worried that others would treat their kids differently because of the Fire Horse myth. Japanese people practiced birth control, and used abortion all in an effort to not have children during the year of the Fire Horse.
And if you’ll notice on the graph, there was a bit of a spike in births during 1965 and 67, another result of people avoiding the year of the Fire Horse.
Why wasn’t there such a dramatic dip in 1906, the previous year of the Fire Horse? There are a couple of reasons.
The Japanese census wasn’t as accurate nor thorough in 1906, so people could have kids, hide them from the official record, and pretend that they were born a different year, completely sidestepping the curse of the Fire Horse. Not to mention that birth control and abortion wasn’t as advanced or widely available in 1906.
Fire Horses Of The Future
The next year of the Fire Horse won’t happen for another 14 years, in 2026. Japan has definitely come a long way since 1966, but does the Fire Horse superstition still hold sway over Japanese culture? Only time will tell.