Celebrating life – no matter what (the age)

One of my Japanese friend’s family will be celebrating her father’s 88th birthday very soon. According to her, it is an important celebration in Japan and her whole family will get together at her hometown, on the occasion. The festivities would be held at a local banquet hall and relatives and friends would be invited too. When she told me this, all i could say was “Wow!! that must be exciting”. For me, coming from India, where grand birthday celebrations are usually meant for kids, celebrating one’s birthday at the age of 88 definitely has a “wow” factor attached to it.

Talking about festivities and celebrations, Japan has countless locals festivals but the way the Japanese celebrate life and its various stages is absolutely amazing. – ‘Shichi-go-san’, ‘Seijin no Hi’, and the various “Go no iwai” (‘Yakudoshi’, ‘Kanreki’, ‘Beiju’, ‘Hakuju”, and many more); and of course birth(and the child’s first visit to the temple or miyamairi) and wedding – the list of festivities is endless. I am sure no other culture celebrates age as much as the Japanese do!!

“Miyamairi” or a newborn’s first visit to the shrine, usually held between 30-100 days after a baby is born, is a very special occasion for the family. The priests says prayers for the baby, asking for her good health and long life. It is somewhat similar to baptism in Christianity. I guess the first temple visit of a newborn is a special occasion in cultures all over the world.

Tokyo. Traditionally Dressed Kid at Meiji-jingu



“Shichi-Go-San” (literally 7-5-3) is a festival for 3 and 5 year old boys and 3 and 7 year old girls. On this day, the families visit the temple with their children. The children wear kimono and are given “Chitose ame” (thousand year candy) that symbolizes good health and a long life. Incidentally, the same friend of mine celebrated shichi-go-san for her grandson, who turned 5 this year.

“Seijin no Hi” or coming of age day. This festival is for the new “young” adults, who are not teenagers anymore, that is turned 20 year of age, the previous year. The females wear “furisode” kimonos** and the males wear a hakama or western suits and attend congratulatory ceremonies usually held at local city halls after which they have drinking parties and photo sessions.

Four beauties

“Go no Iwai” is a custom of celebrating one’s birthday on turning 60 (Kanreki), 70, 77, 80, 81, 88, 90 and 100. Here I go again..”wow”. In a society where the average life expectancy for males is 82 and females is 86, it is not surprising at all. And to top it all, most of the Japanese I know are in pretty good health even at that age. I remember meeting an old lady in a bus who was 86 years old (she told me that). We sat chatting and that is when she was told me she was going to the gym and a swim after that. Can you beat that?

Out of all these birthdays, the Kanreki (60th birthday) and Beiju (88th birthday) are considered the most important ones and are celebrated in a grand manner by many Japanese families.

‘Kanreki’ (literally means “going around the calender”) has its roots in the traditional Chinese calender which was organized in 60 year cycles. Thus, completing 60 years of life meant going one full circle around the calender and was thus symbolized as re-birth. Interestingly, this is the reason why the age of 60 was traditionally the age at which men would retire. This is not the case now when most of the 60 year olds in Japan are still working and most likely feel they still have a long life ahead of them.

‘Beiju’ – the word is made up of the Japanese Kanji character “Bei” (rice). It is basically a play on the Kanji – the strokes in the character can be rearranged to form the number 88 (米 –> 八十八) Traditionally, rice had a special place in the Japanese society as it was their food, their very livelihood and denoted purity and wholesomeness. This is the reason why Beiju is considered to be such an important day.

Then there are the unlucky ages or “Yakudoshi” which are also important. For women, 18 and 32 are considered as unlucky ages, whereas for men it is 24 and 42 that are considered unlucky. Men and women usually visit temples on their birthdays to pray for better luck during the unlucky years.

With the average life expentancy in Japan sky rocketing, these events which were once extremely rare are becoming commonplace now.

All in all, life looks like one big celebration for the Japanese for and onlooker but those who have worked or lived in Japan know very well that there is a lot of hard work that goes into it.

** A furisode (振袖) is kimono with long sleeves and is only worn by adult single women. This is somewhat similar to Debutante gowns in the western society, worn at balls by young ladies making their debut into the high society.

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