2008 will be the NezumiDoshi (子年), the Year of the Rat. Each year, I try to finish a piece which I can use for my nengajyo, my New Year's greeting card, here in Japan. My Year of the Boar piece was finished in the middle of January, which is a step up from the Dog. I didn't knock that one out until February or so. I might even have the chance to send this year's without an apology for tardiness.
Anyone who knows me well knows how much of a thrill I get out of symbols and metaphor. I'm crazy like that. The New Year's cards provide a perfect opportunity to lay traditional symbols on thick, mixed with a healthy dollop of whatever images I can dredge up out of my own brain. Ume, the Japanese plum blossom is considered one of the first signs of spring, a harbinger of rebirth. The cranes fluttering along behind Miss Mousey hint at longevity and a world of happiness from which our mythically-scaled rodent can peer down at us mere mortals.
The mouse (or rat if you prefer, as the word "nezumi" covers both critters)...well, that's a special case. As the first symbol of the zodiac, it is a symbol of prosperity. Shockingly, it got that position by cheating. A race was held to determine the position of the animals in the zodiac. The rat rode on the ox's noggin unnoticed, until the finish line was in sight. Then jumped off and was first over the line. Don't even ask what he did to the cat, who still holds a nasty grudge. The rat is also a symbol of fertility, for obvious reasons.
Surprisingly, some people still find the rat to be "icky" despite all these auspicious properties.