Japan uses an ancient form of the zodiac called eto. The animals are as follows: Rat (ne), Ox (ushi), Tiger (tora), Rabbit (u), Dragon (tatsu), Snake (mi), Horse (uma), Sheep (hitsuji), Monkey (saru), Rooster (tori), Dog (inu), and Boar (i). Each animal is assigned a position in a twelve year rotating cycle. Next year, 2007, will end the current cycle with the Boar, and begin again with the Rat in 2008. Each animal acts as a totem for that year and most people will have some effigy of the totem on display in their home, office, or store.  

If you add “'doshi” (year) to each of the names above, you will be able to use the designations correctly. This year is Inu-doshi, next year, I-doshi, and the following year Ne-doshi. It used to be common for people to state their age by the year in which they were born. I would respond to such as question by saying, “Hitsuji-doshi umare desu.” (I was born in the year of the sheep). Most people looking at a glance would recognize me to be in my early fifties, so if they feel a real need, they may calculate backwards to find the true year of my birth. It is obvious that I was not born in 1943 or 1967, so that leaves 1955 as the correct answer.

The animal totems are not limited to years alone. Each month is assigned an animal in the same sequence, as is each hour of the day (days used to be divided into twelve hours). By adding the suffix “-doki” after the name of the animal you will be able to properly designate any given hour. One o'clock (that is 12:00 midnight to 2:00 a.m.) is Ne-doki, and six o'clock (12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m.) would be Mi-doki.
Armed with this information, it is fun to speculate as to the story behind this piece!
Let's look at each year and the personalities exhibited by the totems and their minions, starting with 2007 - The year of the Boar (i-doshi).
Year of the Boar
Boar (inoshishi) --- Born 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923, 1911. People born in the year of the Boar are brave. They have tremendous inner strength which no one can overcome. They display great honesty. They are short-tempered, yet hate to quarrel or have arguments. They are affectionate and kind to their loved ones.
While in the West we exchange Christmas cards, in Japan New Year post cards (nengajo) are sent out. Traditionally the custom has been to pay a visit within the first few days of the new year to people important in your life. This would include your landlord, employer, your major customers, and of course family and friends. New Year cards were often left when no one was home, or sent when it was inconvenient to pay a visit in person. This has turned into a major industry in Japan.
By custom the cards should be written, and delivered on New Years day, which is quite a fete in most cases! Most people will write them well ahead of time and drop them in the mail the last few weeks of December. As long as it is a New Year Card, the post office will hold on to it and make a special delivery of all  your cards to you on the first of January.
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Many people enjoy making their own cards to send out, as do I. Even more take joy in finding unusual ones to share with their friends. For this article, along with the traditional imagery, I've decided to include some of the New Year cards I've done over the years. I hope you enjoy them!
natural dyes on linen
John Marshall, 2007
Year of the Rat
Rat (nezumi) --- Born 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924, 1912. People born in the year of the Rat are charming, honest, ambitious, and have a tremendous capacity for pursing a course to its end. They will work hard for their goals. They are easily angered but maintain an outward show of control.
The rats are shown here nibbling away at the bales of rice, symbolizing abundance.
natural dyes on silk
John Marshall, 1996
Year of the Ox
Ox (ushi) --- Born 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925, 1913. People born in the year of the Ox are patient, mentally alert and when required to speak are skillful. They have a gift for inspiring confidence in others. This allows them to achieve a great deal of success.
natural dyes on silk
John Marshall, 1997
Year of the Tiger
Tiger (tora) --- Born 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926, 1914. People born in the year of the Tiger are sensitive, stubborn, short-tempered, courageous, selfish and slightly mean - yet they are deep thinkers and are capable of great sympathy for those they are close to and love.
Natural dyes on silk
John Marshall, 1998
with John Marshall
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