Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar are the Japanese 12 zodiac animals, in order. Japan's zodiac signs are directly taken from those of China. The only variation is that in Japan, the last animal is a boar, but in China, it is a pig. However, this difference is not significant enough to make any difference in how people practice Chinese astrology in Japan or China.
In addition to these 12 animals, there is also a 13th sign: Sheep. In Japan, this sign has no special meaning; it is simply included as a counter for Earth elements (which include water, fire, wood, metal, earth). However, in China, the Sheep sign is said to represent someone who is kind yet lacks conviction.
Here are the traditional signs with which they are associated:
RAT - Human beings are like flowing water. They are dynamic and changeable. Rats are crafty and ambitious and will use any means necessary to achieve their goals. Thus, they are similar to humans in some ways but different in others. Rats have a short life span and are known for their greed and lustfulness. However, they can also be helpful if given a chance to learn from their mistakes. Rats are associated with cunning and deception. Often, they are used in magic rituals to gain insight and knowledge about someone else's thoughts.
OX - Humans are like growing trees.
Everyone in Japan recognizes the twelve Chinese Zodiac animals: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Boar (or Pig). In addition, together with the twelve animals, there is a tradition of adding an element to each character. The elements are: wood for the Rat, the Ox, and the Tiger; fire for the Rabbit, the Dragon, and the Snake; water for the Horse, the Dog, and the Boar; and earth for the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, and the Pig.
The order in which the elements are listed varies between sources. However, all agree on the element of the Rat, which is wood. They also generally agree on the remaining eleven elements, though again some vary in ordering them. For example, one source may list the Earth as the first element for the Rabbit, while another lists it as the second.
In Japanese culture, these twelve characters are used to identify someone's year-end salary increase. Each character is assigned a number, which when combined gives a total that matches the year of birth. For example, a person born in the Rat (01) who joins at age 20 would be given a raise after one year at salary level 01. If this person stayed for five more years, they would be given a raise to level 05.
Japan adheres to the Chinese astrological system, which is split into 12 signs (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig). Each year is represented by a distinct zodiac sign and the traits associated with it. So, for example, an animal born in the rat year would be a typical rat of that generation.
In Japan, people are not assigned zodiac signs; they are born with them. The only exception is that if no animals are born within a given year, then a human baby is born in place of it. This has never happened before or since because all other babies are born animals now and have been for many centuries.
So yes, the Japanese follow the Chinese zodiac.
The twelve animals symbolize the Chinese zodiac signs (or sheng xiao, which translates to "birth + resemblance"); they are the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat (or Sheep), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig, in that order. Your astrological sign is merely one component of the puzzle. The other parts include your sun sign (which we will get to) and your birth date.
Each animal represents a different element: the Rat is Earth, the Ox is Wood, the Tiger is Fire, the Rabbit is Water, the Dragon is Metal, the Snake is Earth, the Horse is Fire, the Goat is Wood, the Monkey is Earth, the Rooster is Fire, the Dog is Earth, and the Pig is Water.
These elements are represented by the four seasons: spring, rat; summer, ox; fall, tiger; winter, rabbit. Each season has its own characteristics based on which element it is associated with. For example, rats are known for their quick wits and agility, so someone who is born in the spring has the ability to change habits quickly or adapt to new situations.
The same can be said about each of the twelve animals. For example, rabbits are known for their warm hearts and friendly dispositions, so someone who is born in the spring has a heart that is easy to love and a nature that seeks out friendship.
The origins of Japanese Zodiac beliefs may be traced back to the Chinese notion of the zodiac and the adoption of a twelve-year cycle. God chose a long time ago to assemble 12 animals to establish the zodiac. Then you can figure out what your friend's sign is as well. These animals were chosen because they represent the elements: rat for fire, ox for earth, snake for water, rabbit for wood, sheep for metal, goat for fire, monkey for a natural element unknown to most people today, dog for a natural element known to most people today. Canines are considered a separate animal by some Asian cultures including Japan.
The idea of each person having a unique Zodiac sign was popularized in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185). By then, the Japanese language had become widely spoken across Asia, so the concept of signs for everyone has ancient roots. However, it wasn't until much later that this practice arose of using the signs to interpret one's destiny. The origin of this belief is probably derived from the Chinese ideas of yin and yang, which states that everything is made up of two opposites that exist in all things - male and female, hot and cold, above and below. Based on where you place these opposites in the universe, you will find that there is a correlation with the Earth's climate and humanity's fate.