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How “Coming of Age” Lives Side by Side with “Happy Birthday” in Japan

Why are people’s 20th and 66th birthdays considered special in Japan? Krys Suzuki looks at how traditional age milestones are still preserved in modern culture. Pictured: Women dressed for a Coming of Age (成人の日) ceremony. (Picture: akiyoko / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

By Krystle Suzuki

I remember the first time I was around for a birthday celebration in Japan. It was in a fancy restaurant, and I could hear the staff coming out clapping their hands as they came out with a little cake, happily singing as they made their way to the surprised customer. Excited, I turned my attention to the happy guests, eager to hear what the Japanese version of the birthday song would sound like.

So imagine my shock when they began singing the entire song in English. Surprised, I turned to my date and exclaimed: “WOW! How cool is that? They’re singing the song in ENGLISH?!” He shrugged it off as if it were the most normal thing in the world, and responded, “Well yeah, that’s how they always do it.”

Wait, what? You mean, they always sing Happy Birthday in English? Why didn’t they sing the Japanese version? What does the Japanese version even sound like?

I discovered the reason they sang in English was not because they thought it was cool, and not because they were trying to be fancy, but rather because there isn’t a Japanese version in the first place. That’s because the Japanese never really celebrated birthdays the way we do until very recently, so when they adopted the tradition of singing Happy Birthday, the song came with it.

The Birth of the Birthday

Looking back at the history of birthdays in general, it is believed that this custom came about from religious beliefs, particularly from Christmas being the birthday of Christ for Christians. Japan not being a very religious nation, it’s understandable why this concept never really came about. The tradition of eating cake was also said to have come from traditions of ancient Greece, based on the story of Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, in which the Greeks made cakes in the shape of the moon as offerings, with candles lit as a representation of the moonlight.

(JP) Link: The Origins and Customs of Celebrating Birthdays

With the exception of a few important ages, birthdays as we know were never traditionally celebrated in Japan until very recently. The first celebrations came about after the end of the Second World War along with the influx of incoming Americans and other western tourists. The idea of dedicating a day to celebrate an individual’s day of birth was a concept as foreign to the Japanese as the people themselves. Being a very group- and society-centered nation, Japan never made it customary to make a big deal out of the aging of particular people as individuals. Rather, birthdays were acknowledged and celebrated as a whole, typically on New Year’s Day, which was said to be the day in which everybody became another year older together.

It is said that individual birthday celebrations began in the early 1950s after a law was enacted called The Act of Counting Ages, which began the practice of documenting full age in years rather than the old tradition of becoming one year older as a collective.

Traditional Japanese Birthdays: Birthdays Are For Kids! (No, Really!)

The tradition of shichigosan (七五三) is a traditional way of marking one’s third, fifth and seventh birthdays. (Picture: よっしー / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Before Japan became westernized and adopted the conventional birthday tradition, there were only several notable years which were considered of enough importance to celebrate. The first of these special birthdays are the third, fifth, and seventh birthdays of children, celebrated as a holiday called shichi-go-san (七五三), which translates to “seven-five-three.” This holiday is a festival held on November 15th that specifically celebrates girls ages three and seven, as well as boys ages three and five.

It began at a time when it wasn’t uncommon for children to pass away young, and was celebrated with rituals for the children’s health and said to mark when their children reached middle-childhood age. It was initially celebrated by aristocratic families of the Heian Period, then spread to the Samurai Class, and eventually to the common people.

The first ritual was involving the child’s hair. An old superstition of the Edo Period was that a young child’s hair was unclean, and that shaving babies’ heads until age three was best for their health, and would allow thick, healthy hair to grow in in the future. So because age 3 was the first year when children were allowed to start letting their hair grow in, this became the first important year of celebration. (It’s still celebrated today with hair crafts and decorations.)

Age five was celebrated as the first year for a young boy to join adults in wearing the hakama (袴), a traditional form of Japanese dress. For girls, age seven is when they could start wearing a traditional kimono. Nowadays, these traditions are still celebrated by dressing up children of those ages in the above mentioned traditional attire and visiting a shrine.

(JP) Link: The History and Origin of Shichigo-san | Ceremonies Celebrating the Age of Boys and Girls

Coming of Age in Japan

A woman dressed for a Coming of Age (成人の日) ceremony. (Picture: インチ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The next important age that is celebrated is twenty, or hatachi (二十歳), which is considered to be when a person finally reaches adulthood, as it is the legal age at which they can now drink, drive, smoke and vote. This age is recognized on a special holiday called 成人の日 (Seijin-shiki), or Coming of Age Day, celebrated annually on the second Monday of January. The focus is to celebrate not just the expanded rights of the individual as they move into adulthood, but to also reflect on their new responsibilities.

This is a rather new ceremony, officially recognized in July of 1948. It is celebrated by wearing traditional wear (kimono for women, hakama for men), with ceremonies taking place at the city offices, followed by visits to the shrine. It was said that:

「おとなになったことを自覚し、みずから生き抜こうとする青年を祝いはげます」 “When one gains awareness that they have reached adulthood, they celebrate as a young adult who can now survive on his/her own.”

(JP) Link: The History and Celebration of Coming of Age Day: What it Means to Become an Adult of the World

Celebrations of Longevity for the Elderly

Finally, there are also important celebrations for the elderly. The first is kanreki (還暦), or the 60th birthday, which celebrates the completion of the five cycles of the Chinese zodiac, and therefore is said to represent the person being “reborn.” This birthday is celebrated with gifts of symbolism recognizing rebirth and long life, including white cranes (said to represent 1,000 years), turtles which represent longevity and 10,000 years, and wearing the color red which is said to be the colors representing babies and new life. This holiday was of great importance back in the day, when it was considered less common to live to old age.

(JP) Link: The Unusual Story and History of Kanreki: A 60th Birthday Celebration

Other special celebrations for the elderly fall on a person’s double-digit ages, namely their 77th, 88th, and 99th birthdays. These ages are said to be important because of the calligraphy characters used to write these numbers and what they represent. The 77th birthday is called kiju (喜寿), or the “happy age”, since the kanji character used to write 77 looks similar to the kanji character for “happy,” or 喜. The 88th birthday is called beiju (米寿), or the “rice age”, because the character for rice (米) resembles the characters for 88 (八十八) . Similarly, the 99th birthday is called of hakuju (白寿), or “white age”, because the character for 100 (百) looks like the character for white (白) with the top stroke removed. The significance of these characters comes from the fact that removing the top stroke from 百 represents the number 100 minus 1, resulting in 99, the age that is being celebrated.

(JP) Link: Longevity Celebrations for the Ages: Koki, Kijo, Sanju, Beiju, Sotsuju, Hakuju

Birthday Celebrations Today

Nowadays, as with many aspects of Japanese culture, celebration has taken on a very modern, Westernized approach, and often combines elements of both traditions. While the above mentioned age celebrations are still very much honored throughout Japan and celebrated in their traditional fashions, it has also become customary for the younger generation to celebrate their birthdays year by year in the same fashion that we do in America and other western countries. However, it is still generally done on a much smaller scale, and is more commonly held for children or between couples.

For those that do choose to celebrate however, it is becoming more common to buy cakes and small gifts for their loved ones, and for couples to go on dates. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, many restaurants have even hopped on board and now offer birthday services for customers including cakes being brought out by smiling staff as they sing the birthday song.

However, still being a fairly new tradition, and because of the strong group-minded culture of the Japanese people, don’t expect to find everyone waiting in anticipation as their day of birth nears, and don’t expect to be invited to a party. Many still prefer not to bring much attention to themselves with individual parties, and many prefer to stick to tradition.

Next time you’re in Japan, if your friends decide not to celebrate their birthdays with a bang like we might in America, why not try experiencing one of the above mentioned age ceremonies instead?

Krys is a US based artist, writer, and translator who has spent most of her life immersed in Japanese culture. She now uses her knowledge and experiences to write engaging and informative articles for those who want to learn more about this unique beloved country.


Originally published at unseenjapan.com on November 9, 2018.