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The short & effective catchphrase written in the 18th century by an inventor from Kagawa, Japan has changed a Japanese custom ever since.

On “The day of OX in DO-YO-U“, a lot of Japanese people eat eels. The idea was introduced by an inventor who just wanted to help an eel restaurant in the Edo period (1603-1868). This is the real story of how great marketing could become one country’s tradition or custom.

This article introduce… 

  • The original custom we have today.
  • Why eels? 
  • What was the catchphrase?
  • Who was the inventor?
  • The old Japanese calendar system: how to count dates and year

ABOUT THE CUSTOM

THE ORIGINAL CUSTOM WE HAVE:

Today is 土用の丑の日(/DO-YO-U-no-USHI-no-HI/) “the day of ox in DO-YO-U”. We have a custom to eat food that starts with the “U” sound. USHI is one of the dates in the old calendar system Japan used instead of numbers like we do today. 

WHY EELS?

Among many foods that start with “U”, eating eels is the most popular food today.
*EEL = 鰻(うなぎ/U-na-gi/). 

But back in the Edo era (1603 -1868), eating eels during the Summer was unpopular. Because Summer in Japan is hot and humid, nobody wanted to eat oily food like grilled eels. People prefer eating something cold and less oily. That made people who ran eel restaurants struggled to keep their business going during the Summer back then. 

However it changes drastically later in the Edo period. 

A man told the owner of an eel restaurant to put a sign in front of the restaurant. The sign suggested was…“Today: the day of ox (本日、土用の丑の日)”.

Believe it or not, that restaurant sold a crazy amount of eels that Summer because of the sign. That sign has spreaded all over Japan and it has stuck as the most popular “U-starting food” to eat, ever since.  

Originally eating “U-starting food” meant to gain stamina to get through the hot & humid Summer. Eels happen to be a type of stamina food like garlic or beef. 

WHO WAS THE INVENTOR CAME UP WITH THE PHRASE?

平賀 源内(HIRAGA, Gennai) [1728-1780] was the inventor who came up with the phrase. He was from Kagawa. Being an inventor was just one side of his talent. He was also known as both an East & West medicine scholar, doctor, geologist, playwright, actor….and so on.
*Kagawa is the prefecture we are in.

ABOUT THE OLD CALENDAR SYSTEM

THE DAY OF OX?

In the old Japanese calendar system, the dates were counted with 12 animals. Regardless of month change, the order of these 12 animals continues. Some month starts with 子(/NE/ rat), same month but different year could start with 寅(/TORA/ tiger). Therefore, the date of “the day of ox during DO-YO-U” with the modern calendar system changes every year. 

12 animals and their order are…

  • 子(/NE/–the Rat)
  • 丑(/USHI/–the Ox)
  • 寅(/TORA/–the Tiger)
  • 宇(/U/–the Rabbit)
  • 辰(/TATSU/–the Dragon)
  • 巳(/MI/–the Snake)
  • 午(/U-MA/–the Horse)
  • 未(/HITSUJI/–the Sheep)
  • 申(/SARU/–the Monkey)
  • 酉(/TORI/–the Rooster)
  • 戌(/I-NU/–the Dog)
  • 亥(/I-NO-SHISHI/–the Wild Boar)

…They are called 十二支(/JUU-NI-SHI/).

The date count order goes with combination of these 12 animals and the thing called 十干(/JIKKAN/).

  • 甲(/KI-NO-E/)
  • 乙(/KI-NO-TO/)
  • 丙(/HI-NO-E/)
  • 丁(/HI-NO-TO/)
  • 戊(/TSUCHI-NO-E/)
  • 己(/TUCHI-NOTO/)
  • 庚(/KA-NO-E/)
  • 辛(/KA-NO-TO/)
  • 壬(/MIZU-NO-E/)
  • 癸 (/MIZU-NO-TO/)

These 10.

With the combination of both 十二支 and 十干, you have 60 days in one cycle. 

This counting system is also used for the year as well.
I was born in 1981. It was the year of 辛酉(KA-NO-TO-TORI). 2021 is 辛丑(KA-NO-TO-USHI).
This article was published in…

YEAR: 辛丑
MONTH: 文月(/HUMI-ZUKI/)
DATE: 丁丑(/HI-NO-TO-USHI/)

This article had so many essences. What part of this article did you like?

SATOKO
Head Curator

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