Once upon a time, there was a small village where two little farms stood side by side.
In one of them, lived a farmer named Tora-san. He was a keen hunter and a hard-working man, with a booming voice and large calloused hands. His fields were always neat and tidy as was his wooden house.
The other farm was inhabited by a strange man named Tori-san. Lanky, always daydreaming, Tora-san’s neighbor was not a very good farmer. His fields were always full of weeds and his house always seemed dusty.
In fact, the most incredible thing about Tori-san’s little farm was the army of chickens the man raised with great care. He had hens, chicks and roosters, big and small, russet, white and black. They were his greatest pride.
If when night came, the birds all slept in the beautiful henhouse Tori-san had built in his courtyard, daytime was far less peaceful.
All day long, chickens roamed in the village. They strutted the streets, perching and pooping on roofs, carts and people alike. The birds also vandalized fields and gardens, damaging vegetables while searching for juicy worms and insects.
Villagers were fed up with Tori-san’s troublesome poultry. One day, as chickens had ruined his tasty radish crop, Tora-san had enough and he went to his neighbor’s house:
– Tori-san, we can’t take it anymore: you must do something about your chickens. You can’t let them run wild in the village all day long!
The lanky man opened wide eyes, full with fake tears:
– But, Tora-san I was born on the year of the Rooster. It is my duty to raise chickens: they are such gentle creatures!
Tora-san went back home fuming:
– What an idiot! I must teach this man a lesson but how…
The jaded man didn’t sleep much that night, as he racked his brains for a way of making Tori-san understand how burdensome his attitude was. Then as the first sunray appeared, he had an idea.
A few days later, as Tori-san was grooming of his beloved chickens, he suddenly realized:
– Thirty-seven, thirty-eight… Wait, where are Sweet-eyes, Fluffy-feet and their chicks?
Distressed, the farmer counted and counted again. Yet, no counting could change the fact that eight birds were missing.
Tori-san thoroughly inspected the henhouse. No cracks could be seen but, near the western wall, he found a strange track imprinted in the mud.
– This is no bear, wolf or fox. And it’s far too big to be a cat…
The poor man tried to follow the track but it soon disappeared into thin air near the village road.
The following night, Tori-san woke up with a start. Deep in the night, he could hear a big beast growling. He got up on shaking legs and grabbed a staff and a candle. But before he could set a foot out, the farmer heard a thundering roar.
When he finally mustered enough courage to reach his courtyard, he discovered the same big paw tracks surrounding the wooden coop.
Tori-san ran to Tora-san’s house:
– Tora-san, Tora-san! You are a skilled hunter! Please, please help me!
Tora-san put a large, heavy hand on the leaner man:
– You seem quite shocked, what on earth did happened to you?
Tori-san led him to the henhouse and showed him the tracks. The big man made a grimace:
– Oh Tori-san I am so, so sorry but I cannot help you.
– B-but why? You are a man not even afraid of bears! Is the beast attacking my dear birds a demon even you fear?
Tora-san let out a heavy sigh:
– It is no such thing but you see, those tracks were made… by a tiger. And, Tori-san, I was born on the year of the Tiger. It is my duty to protect those amazing creatures.
The other man cried:
– But what can I do! I cannot let your bloodthirsty beast eat my beloved birds!
Tora-san pretended to think out loud:
– Hum… maybe build some barn where you could kept your chickens night and day… like a huge henhouse or…
– This is an excellent idea! Wall, fence, I’ll do anything to keep them safe.
And the little man went picking planks, already planning to work despite the night.
Tora-san smiled and went back home. He closed his door and from a bag, he took a pair of wooden shoes. He had spent several evenings carving the soles like tiger’s paws. In a corner, was a little cage where the missing chickens soundly slept.
– I’ll bring you back to your master in a few days. But I must admit… I kinda like being a tiger!
And he went out howling.
Unlike other Asian countries, Japan tends to celebrate lunar zodiac signs along with gregorian New Year, on January 1st. Which is why you can already see many cute chickens on the Japanese internet and in shrines, supermarkets etc. 2017 is the Fire Rooster year (which if you follow lunar calendar, will officially starts on January 28th).
Lunar zodiac uses special ideograms to designate animals: for example, tiger is usually written 虎 when lunar sign is 寅 (both are read tora in kunyomi). Rooster sign is 酉 which is read tori in kunyomi.
There is a lot to say about asian zodiac animals, their archetypes, traditional symbolism, use in astronomy and calendar etc. but it is such a wide and ancient subject (at least Han dynasty!) I must admit I don’t even know where to start! This wiki page about Chinese astrology has good leads as has this page more specifically about Japanese Zodiac and its links to buddhism – but if find them both difficult to read if you don’t have any background on the subject 😦 (if you know any good and clear sources, link them in the com!)
I have read different versions of this tale. One was much more gruesome, with chickens being killed ten by ten. I prefer this gentler one which stress both bad and good sides of our farmers!