The Year of the Snake

by Frank Lev, Apr 25, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

I was walking in the woods near my house when I saw an attractive woman walking her dog. Eager to practice my Japanese, I tried to say something like this, "Oh what a pretty dog you have!" I was thrilled when she seemed to understand and thanked me.

I decided to go for broke and really impress her. "How old? " I asked. "Thirty one," she replied. I was stunned. Quickly I figured out that the dog was 217 dog years old. My mouth dropped open and stared at her and the dog before it dawned on me that she was talking about herself and not her dog. I laughed about it and we talked for a few minutes (she was married and not interested by the way).

It wasn't until I got home and thought about it that I figured out that 2 things were going on here. First in the Japanese language it is normal to leave the subject of the sentence out. It is implied by the situation. So it was correct for me to ask "How old" and not say "How old is the dog." because it was clear to me that I was asking about the dog. The other thing going on was that in Japan it is not considered rude to ask someone's age. It is quite common to ask this question even when you meet someone for the first time. The woman didn't think it strange for me to ask her, a total stranger how old she was. How would someone in the USA react to such a question?

To add to the confusion, the Japanese use a different year calendar than we do. It is based on the reigns of the emperors. Hirohito became the emperor in 1926 and reigned for 63 years until 1989. It was called the Showa reign. Someone born in that year would say they were born in year 1 of Showa. I was born in 1953 so I was born in year 27 of Showa.

The next emperor, Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989. So someone born today would be born in year 12 of Heisei. So whenever someone asks about the age of a foreigner or the other way around, there is a time lag where some basic math must be done.

The Japanese borrowed many things from the Chinese including among other things, Buddhism, a written language, and the Chinese calendar. Most people are familiar with the Chinese astrological system from going to Chinese restaurants. There on the placemat is often an explanation of the animal system. It's fun.

The twelve animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar. The funny part is that the meanings of the animals in the west is different than the meaning in the east. For example who would want to be a rat? However, in the Chinese system, a rat is ambitious, dynamic, and skillful.

2001 is the year of the snake. In the west, the snake is associated with evil and lying. Even the American Indians had a negative association for the snake. White man speaks with forked tongue. A snake is slimy, it slithers, they are sometimes poisonous. However in the Chinese system a snake is considered graceful and fluid. It is subtle, elegant, and restrained. It is the opposite and companion to the dragon which is all powerful and full of unrestrained energy.

People sometimes tell me that I Iook younger than my 47 and 1/2 years. Call it vanity but sometimes I even believe them. Maybe because the Japanese are not used to looking at western faces, sometimes people swore that they thought I was in my twenties. After all, I exercise, don't smoke or drink, wear a hat in the sun, and eat a healthy diet.

I have even been known to lie about my age when I think I can get away with it. This became a problem when I came to Japan. One day I would tell someone my real age. Another day and in another mood I would tell another person a different age. I became confused. I needed a better system. That's when it struck me; a way to lie about my age without really lying. When people ask me how old I am I simply say, "I am a snake." If after a few moments they say, "Oh you are 36", then I don't correct them, I just let it pass. It is still lying but in a more passive way. Also this way I don't get confused. I tell everyone the same story.

The Japanese have an end of the year tradition that is similar in some ways to the Jewish tradition. In the Jewish tradition people go around to friends and family and ask for forgiveness for the past year's transgressions. The Japanese are not real big on talking things over, admitting problems, coming clean etc. That involves losing face and facing uncomfortable feelings. They will go to almost any length to avoid conflict and unpleasant feelings between people.

Instead they have an end of the year party where everyone gets together, gets drunk, and has a nice experience together. This group experience implies forgiveness without having to get into the sticky details. My school's bon nen kai was to be held at a busy Chinese restaurant. There we feasted on delicious Chinese food and drank lots of sake.

At the end of the evening everyone was feeling mellow and warm. We were a happy group. We proceeded to another bar where my boss knew the band. The lead singer was a powerful woman in the Tina Turner tradition. At the end of the set she came over to us. We were talking together and it seemed to me that she was flirting a little. "So how old are you?" she cooed. "I'm a snake," I answered. "Me too. " she replied. "But I'm older than you. I'm 48." I let it pass.

I wasn't too thrilled about her attentions anyway. We talked for a few minutes when my boss came up. "Hey did you two know that you are almost exactly the same age?" Of course my boss knew my real age from my resume. The singer looked at me in shock. "You told me that you were 36." I smiled sheepishly. I was caught red-handed, fork-tongued.

The two women looked at me and laughed. Word got around that I was a liar. "Uso". I didn't hear the end of it that night. I took my medicine. Around 3 am we started home. My boss gave me and some others a ride. I found myself in the backseat with an attractive Japanese woman. "How old are you?" she asked right off. My boss shot her husband a glance in the front seat. "I'm a snake, "I replied warily. "You sure are," my boss added laughing. "You sure are".