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A Fortune Told

by Eric Madeen

Having one's fortune told in Japan is not at all uncommon. The visit to the Shinto shrine that starts each year includes collecting omikuji, fortunes on thin strips of paper that are folded and knotted like origami around tree twigs. Then there's seimeihandan: adding up the stroke count in your name to determine your fortune. In major department stores, vending machines dispense fortunes for ¥500. And outside major train stations you can count on finding a palm, face or tarot-card reader, working by the light of a lantern on a rickety folding table. Last but not least is one soothsayer in particular, plying her trade far from the hustle and bustle of mainstream Japan... Emiko "Emi" Aoki is a Japanese fortune-teller in the Chinese astrological tradition, and like most fortune-tellers she has an aura of mystery about her. Indeed. Born in a Snake year — Snakes are said to be both wise and enchanting — she has the feminine mystique in abundance. Her eyes betray playfulness and sagacity, and her gift of laughter is a welcome distraction from that midriff thrumming I feel from having her fortune-tell me. What evils in me can this soothsayer see?

But first, who is she? In Japan's hierarchical society, Emi is highborn. A branch of her family tree includes a Kyoto count and more recently, a retainer of the Tokugawa who lost his title by turning samurai, proving his loyalty by following Tokugawa to Edo. She grew up on the Bluff, a tony quarter of Yokohama, and graduated from the High School of Sacred Heart in Tokyo before attending private colleges in the U.S., where she perfected her English. An unhappy marriage in Japan prompted her to visit a fortune-teller, who astutely divined Emi's background and predicament, inspiring her to study this ancient art that came to Japan from China, and was used by geisha and royalty alike, including Tokugawa. To her credit regarding the rich and famous, Emi presaged the shocking demise of sumo wrestler Kurama, who was the picture of health when she made the prediction — after he announced his birth date publicly. And she divined the separation of actress Rie Miyazawa and sumo grand-champion Takanohana, not to mention a high number of less notable but nonetheless accurate predictions, including those about mutual acquaintances who attested that she was "on." Now, though, she was looking into the likes of me, a skeptic by nature who hitherto attributed astrology to superstition, facile reduction, and watered-down general truths. Note that one week before, she had asked her subject to hand over his time and date of birth: 4:48 p.m. and thus in the hours (3:00-4:59 p.m.) of the Monkey, on October 24 in the Dog year of 1958. From across a coffee table that separated us, she looked at me, then past me through the picture window behind me, her vision raveling in cherry blossoms quaking in the wind. She looked at me again, then stunned this Earth Dog with a series of undeniable truths, delivered with a gleam in the eye, a savvy grin and the confidence engendered by telling an estimated one-thousand fortunes over eight years in the trade.

Naughty Boy

"You were a very difficult child to rear," she began, consulting her notes, then emphasizing, "very, very difficult." The veracity of this made me blush like a schoolgirl. I was absolute hell for my parents, the quintessential naughty boy all the way through high school when the grouch next door formed a neighborhood council to put an end to my blockbuster parties. "Your weak points are your feet and stomach." On two occasions (tobogganing and pig piling) I've fractured ankles, and on two others I've broken toes, not to mention several ankle twists. Oh, and I once suffered a duodenal ulcer, plus ongoing heartburn of flame-thrower intensity. She told me my guardian star is kagae, the star of art and scholarship. Kagae also means umbrella. It implies, she said, that you're shaded and thus from a good family and respected. "Kagae also means you're lonely," she added. True. Sigh. Then she teased out a smile with: "You're very smart, brilliant, and like to study. You'll succeed as a scholar." Knock on wood. (I'm now up for promotion to associate professor.) "You're an artist, a writer." She squinted, as if getting in touch with her intuition, which she claims she doesn't use ("It's all based on calculation"). Peering down this dark well that was the truth of me, she nodded. "I think a novelist." I squirmed. "Yes, a novelist. And you'll succeed, maybe writing a bestseller." Music to my ears — only if New York were listening, and buying! (one of three unpublished novels). "Your center star is henzai, so you have many hobbies and you're versatile, adaptable, sociable. You're also diligent and business-minded, so you're good at making money." Yup, yup. My stocks are outperforming the S&P 500 and real estate's way up. "You're very much a Dog in that you're quite good to your friends and loved ones." Here she looked at me askance through narrowed eyes, "But sometimes they dupe you." And how, the rapscallions! "You're best suited romantically to a Tiger, Horse, or another Dog." The love of my life was a Tiger. "You should avoid romance with those born in August and September." My Western horoscope also cautions against Leos and Libras, while being lukewarm toward Virgos who fall between.

Run Another Lap, Son

Now she was telling me my energy level, calculated by adding up the amounts of the five essential elements and, well, character, or the deep stuff that personality hides. When you're born, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water should be there in basic Yin or Yang balances. (If a newborn lacked an element then it'd figure, via ideogram, into his or her given name.) Wood, by the way, denotes defensiveness and stubbornness. My wood count is 18, Fire (emotion) 54, Earth (charm) 60, Metal (aggression) 90, and Water(wisdom) 30. My grand total was 252, which is "an extremely high energy level!" she said, explaining that the average is 180. My harried mother used to try to reduce this figure by ordering me to run laps around the house. She continued like this, hitting bulls-eyes, until getting around to the dark side, or Shinigami, literally death god; more loosely, both the most harmful star and birth animal in one's matrix. One's Shinigami is temperamental, helpful at times by giving lottery-winning luck, but most often harmful, leading you down. My Shinigami, she said, is a Rabbit — in this case someone born in a Rabbit year. Gulp. My wife is a Rabbit. Enough said! The clunkers in all this were her telling me that there was, at some time, adoption in my family (none that I know of), and that I have hemorrhoids (no comment). I write both these off to probability. (Note that in Japan a family without a son often adopts a male heir in order to keep the name alive.) Regarding my future, I, as romantic, refused to listen, though gathered, through splayed fingers over my ears, that it was promising.

Solar vs. Lunar

Properly explaining the fundamentals of Chinese astrology would take the space of three magazines the length of this one. More fruitful here is a look at its history and raison d'être. Mr. Tatsuhiro Nakajima, a certified practitioner of Western astrology in London for six years before moving back to Tokyo where he now practices his trade, told me in a phone interview that "Astrology's influence has to do with light when you were born, and how the spectrum of light and planets influence the psyche and body." He summed up the difference between the two systems: "Western astrology is more solar, masculine and rational. It looks at the issue from a more aggressive perspective and allows for free will. But Chinese astrology is more lunar and feminine, receptive and emotional, where you follow the way of your destiny." If something exists there must be a reason for it, and the reason for the existence of astrology was originally "anxiety, people's fear of the unknown in the universe," Nakajima said. Things haven't changed. Most of Nakajima's clients go to him because they're anxious — from relocation, relationship, life direction, family, stress, depression, etc.

In the Beginning

While Western astrology as we know it began in ancient Babylon, Chinese astrology can be dated back to 2637 B.C., when the Emperor Huang Ti originated the Chinese lunar calendar and introduced the first cycle of 60 lunar years, composed of five 12-year cycles. (Twelve years — coincidentally? — is how long it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun.) Each year was assigned its own element. The Chinese zodiac has some of the rustic — and thus genuine — gusto of old McDonald's farm. Concerning the beginnings of its bestiary, legend has it that the Lord Buddha summoned the animal kingdom to bid him farewell. But only 12 showed up. In appreciation he named a year for each animal in the order of its arrival, starting with the Rat and ending with the Boar. A more likely explanation is the fact that Chinese society was agrarian, and its philosophers needed to concretize their conclusions regarding power balances between yin and yang; to characterize the dominant style or tone in a single year of the cycle, familiar animals were chosen. (Scholars have posited that Chinese astrology was practiced all over the Orient dating back to the 40th century B.C.; such a depth of time certainly allowed for much evolution — and perfection.)

Cosmic Rules

More interesting still is the explanation given to me in an e-mail interview with Dr. Levon B. Hovakimyan Ph.D, a prominent physicist at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. He explained that "In our solar system, life forms must conform to specific cosmic rules imposed by the stable arrangement of moving celestial bodies." Okay. But why 12 animals? And what's the significance of birth time and year? To illustrate his point he compared people to flora, explaining, "Trees and flowers are perhaps the most ancient and successful inhabitants of our planet. There are certain flowers that bloom only once in seven years, which reflects harmony with powerful, rhythmic forces of orbital origin." He left it up to me to extrapolate: If there is a specific flower that blooms every seven years why can't there be a cycle of 12 distinct character types in humans "blooming" over 12 years? He went on to say that time and date of birth are now pertinent when taking alternative medicine. Then concluded with a question: "How do you interpret this?" With angst? Legend? Grounded philosophy? Or theoretical physics? Regardless, the animal and element representing your birth year are said to deeply influence your character. (See chart, keeping in mind that the Chinese New Year doesn't start until mid-January or February and changes every year.)

From Rat to Pig

It makes sense that the cycle begins with the Rat. On the farm, can you think of a more wily survivor, especially in a famine year, than these encroaching hoarders who take care of their own? Thus, those born in Rat years are much respected in China and are said to be sociable and innovative but also stingy and manipulative; Oxen diligent but stubborn; Tigers brave but impulsive; Rabbits tactful but secretive and squeamish; Dragons strong and enthusiastic but rigid and mistrustful; Snakes intuitive and sexy but conniving and clinging; Horses popular and dexterous but selfish and rebellious; Goats sensitive but pessimistic; Monkeys improvisational but deceitful; Roosters resilient but (you guessed it) cocky; Dogs faithful and constant but uneasy and cynical; and Pigs gallant and voluptuous but materialistic or, um, piggish. While Emi Aoki terms her optionally-given fee of ¥3,000 a donation, Nakajima charges ¥10,000 for a one-hour counseling session, when he and his client work on the issue together à la horary astrology. Included in the latter is a 25-page printout of the client's birth chart prepared with the aid of sophisticated software.

Chinese astrology is a fascinating animal, or rather animals. I felt myself being pulled deeper and deeper into its corral, eagerly asking acquaintances their beast so I could look them up in a burgeoning collection of astrological tomes. In fact, I'm beginning to see people through a kind of metaphorical overlay that is their birth animal. Here a dog, there a dog, everywhere a dog dog... Woof, woof. Oink oink. Check it out.

The Lunar Signs from 1900 to 2007

Rat 1900 1912 1924 1936 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996
Ox 1901 1913 1925 1937 1949 1961 1973 1985 1997
Tiger 1902 1914 1926 1938 1950 1962 1974 1986 1998
Rabbit 1903 1915 1927 1939 1951 1963 1975 1987 1999
Dragon 1904 1916 1928 1940 1952 1964 1976 1988 2000
Snake 1905 1917 1929 1941 1953 1965 1977 1989 2001
Horse 1906 1918 1930 1942 1954 1966 1978 1990 2002
Sheep 1907 1919 1931 1943 1955 1967 1979 1991 2003
Monkey 1908 1920 1932 1944 1956 1968 1980 1992 2004
Rooster 1909 1921 1933 1945 1957 1969 1981 1993 2005
Dog 1910 1922 1934 1946 1958 1970 1982 1994 2006
Boar 1911 1923 1935 1947 1959 1971 1983 1995 2007

Because the years overlap between the Solar and Lunar calendars, you should check your exact birth date against a more detailed listing.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.