Star Charts and Moon Stations [Star Chart]

Star Charts and Moon Stations

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

Revised April, 2010

Until the Meiji Restoration, charting of the heavens in Japan (like most astronomical observation) was closely tied to divination and calendar reckoning for astrological purposes. While there were some variations in choice of stars, delineation of asterisms by Japanese chart makers closely followed traditions and developments in China. For ancient Chinese and later Korean and Japanese cartographers, four talismanic animals marked the four seasons and four cardinal directions... the Azure Dragon of the East (Spring), the Red Bird of the South (Summer), the White Tiger of the West (Fall), and the "Genbu" (Black Tortoise) of the North (Winter) [actually there were five, the other "direction" being "center"... earth]. Corresponding to each of the celestial "palaces" were seven sei shuku or what are sometimes called "lunar lodges". As Chen (1996) indicates, moon "stations" or "lodges" may be somewhat errant in that these markers were probably used to determine position of sun and planets as well as the moon, and their number may or may not have been related to the period of the moon's orbit. Origins of these associations are somewhat obscure and even controversial. In China, they appear to be at least 2400 years old, some estimates dating much earlier. In Japan, their first confirmed "existence" is found in the 7th century (probable dating) Takamatsu Zuka Kofun (Pine Tree Burial Mound) and the recently explored Kitora Tomb. They also probably came with various methods of divination and calendrical reckoning in that century as well.

Determination of the talismanic animals and associated star "palaces" together with the associated 28 sei shuku or lunar lodges represent some of the most complex aspects of Asian "astronomy". The associations have not only been adapted over the centuries but are also tied to the astrology of each culture. Cultures using these associations were/are located in the Northern hemisphere for the most part. An apparent anomalie is the fact that the actual positional path of the sun seems to move in a direction opposite the seasonal associations of Spring and Fall. While "Genbu" (translated as the black tortoise of winter, a name which fails to really convey the fearsome nature of this snakelike shelled "creature") and the red bird of summer have the sun nicely positioned in them during their respective seasons, the white tiger of autumn and blue dragon of spring lie "opposite" the sun's actual perceived path. While Staal (1984) argues that this is due to the animals and sei shuku being created some 17 to 18 millennia ago (precession creating the anomaly), there is actually little archaeological and certainly no written evidence to indicate that this kind of system was in use at such an early time; this also does not really explain the apparent "backward" motion of the sun through seasons. More likely, moon stations may have been among the first delineated constellations and were perhaps used as markers for seasonal change; they were subsequently incorporated into a more complex mathematical division of the "heavens" (months, principle and sectional terms, etc.).

According to Nivison (1989), the talismanic animals with their associated sei shuku were probably used in conjunction with the direction to which the handle of the big dipper (often called the "North Seven Stars" in China, Korea, and Japan) pointed at the equinoxes and solstices. In other words, the "North Seven Stars" were probably used as an actual "time piece" for determination of season. Before the Christian Era, when the sei shuku were created, the "North Seven Stars" did not appear to "set" (with precession, they had a relatively "higher" position than now). Thus, they could be seen and used in conjunction with the sei shuku as such a seasonal "time piece" year round (see Ho, 1985, for further explanation in English). Looking toward the North, the handle of the "North Seven Stars", when viewed each evening at an ideal time, appeared to rotate in a counterclockwise manner through the year, apparently in opposite direction to the sun's movement through the ecliptic and moon stations. The reader may find some visual explanation of this anomaly by looking at the charts accompanying the links to seasonal animals. At any rate, with precession, their function probably took on more and more of an astrological function as centuries progressed, and this was certainly their primary "function" as they found their way to Japan in the early centuries A.D. Nivison (1989) and Chen (1996) have excellent discussions in English of various aspects and "problems" related to the origin and development of the sei shuku. Cullen (1996) also provides much information on the use of sei shuku in calendar reckoning.

In many ways, these associations reflect the mirror or "shadow" relation of earth to sky... human to nature... nature to cosmos... that was so prominent in pre-scientific cosmologies in this part of Asia. At times we are looking at earth from the perspective of the emperor; that is, we are in the North, South is opposite, East is to the left, and West is to the right. At other times, we are looking toward the North, from the earth, and reading the signs of stars relative to our previously defined "earthly" directions.

Like myths and traditions in Western cultures, these views still wield influence in the daily life of people in China, Korea, and Japan... this despite quite prominent scientific literacy. However, it should be pointed out that astrological divination in China, Korea and Japan was and is rather complex. It took and still takes into account many "elements" of sky and earth, an elaborate geomancy including but certainly not limited to the position of some celestial body within a given constellation at a person's birth. It is difficult to argue that the system is not intellectually rich, and it no doubt had pragmatic use in both affairs of state and "common" person. However, it is somewhat sad that in the long history of China, not to mention the curious but rather isolated Japan, such concentration on astrological matters held attention much longer than in the West, thus retarding at times significant scientific advances in astronomy (see Calendar Reform in Japan). Many gifted minds were and perhaps still are wasted in such divination.

That said, lore related to moon stations is one of the most interesting aspects of Asian Ethnoastronomy. Somewhat similar to Chinese but perhaps even more, Japanese interpretations of these associations tended to revolve around agricultural needs and animistic views of nature. Unlike many Western myths and traditions, there were few if any perceptions in the myths of "active" god(s) creating or wreaking good or bad on the cosmos and/or humankind. Rather, especially in Japan with its Shinto base, gods like the talismanic animals were seen as manifestations of nature... stars and celestial events were signs of change in season, life, politics, etc... perhaps most often portending "bad" but sometimes "good" as well.

Below is an example of a star chart from Edo Era Japan. Also linked from this page are charts generated from The Sky which show the stations and associated key stars more clearly for each of the four talismanic animals. Kanji, meaning, and Japanese name are also provided. As mentioned, particular combinations and key stars changed over time, and the ones used by Yasui below are considered to be more "modern" (see Cullen, 1996). While there is an abundance of national and local Japanese lore associated with the sei shuku, many of the origins of Japanese names have been lost. There is no way we can do justice to this complex system (especially with regard to its Chinese roots) in a web page article. Readers who are interested in more information in English about origins as well as views of all Chinese constellations associated with the segments of moon stations might want to look at the Nivison work referenced above and the work of Ho (1985), Chen (1996), and Cullen (1996). While Staal (1984) relates Chinese constellation lore, his speculations and interpretations should be viewed very cautiously [See Kelley and Milone (2005) for an excellent assessment].

Example Old Chart with Moon Stations

[Edo Era Star Chart]

A 1699 Star Chart by Harumi Yasui

[Star Chart CloseUp]

Close-Up of Yasui's Map Showing the First 15 Moon Stations

The "KyoSei" or key star for each Moon Station is circled in red. The key star for Station 1 is Alpha Vir (Spica).

Charts of Seasonal Animals with Moon Stations

The Azure Dragon of the East (Spring)

The "Genbu" (Black Tortoise) of the North (Winter)

The White Tiger of the West (Fall)

The Red Bird of the South (Summer)


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Steven L. Renshaw

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