Friday, December 12, 2008

Birthday in Japan

The Japanese do not have any special birthday celebrations. Birthdays in Japan are now celebrated almost exactly the same as they are in the United States. People give the person with a birthday some gifts or a birthday card. A birthday cake is often given with birthday candles and people sing "Happy Birthday to You" - in English. That song is one of the most well known songs in the world. I've seen it sung in many movies in which not even one person spoke English (trivia -that song is copyrighted and will be, under current laws, until 2030; it makes around 2 million dollars a year on royalties).

Prior to the 19th century, the Japanese used a solar-lunar calender. The way in which peoples age were determined was strange. At birth the child was considered 1 year old and then on New Years day (which was later in the year than January first is now) the child would become two. Here is an example, child born in what is now November would become two on New Years day. This is in part why New Years day is the biggest holiday in Japan. Birth dates and ages are now determined the way they are in the USA (on actual birthday and first anniversary of that day child is one).

Some ages have special meanings and rituals or are milestone ages.

Shichi Go San -Seven Five Three
The ages of three and seven for girls and five for boys are milestone ages. The numbers three, five, and seven are considered to be lucky according to Japanese numerology so these ages are considered important in a persons life. Shichi-Go-San festivals are held every year on November 15th of every year.

Seijin No Hi - Coming of Age
Twenty years old is a major day for everyone. When a person is twenty they become legal adults and are given many rights like buying alcohol, getting married without parental consent, entering legal agreements, etc. On the second Monday of January festivals for people becoming twenty are held across Japan.

Yakudoshi - Calamity Years
There are some years that people in Japan believe are times of calamity (called yakudoshi). In these years is is believed that people are likely to experience misfortunes or illness. It is generally believed that men's yakudoshi are the ages 25, 42 and 61, and for women 19, 33 and 37, though there are local and historical variations. The ages of 42 for men and 33 for women are considered to be especially bad and are called honyaku (great calamity). The reason these years are considered particularly bad probably has to do with how those number can be pronounced. 42 can be pronounced "shi-ni" which is a homophone of the word "to death," and 33, when pronounced as "sanzan" means "hard", "terrible", or "disastrous". It is a common practice to go to a Shinto shrine and have an exorcism (yakubari) to prevent bad luck. The year before yakudoshi, called maeyaku, and the year after, called atoyaku are also considered bad luck.

Kanreki or Honkegaeri
Either term can be used. Kanreki means return calender. Honkegaeri means return to one's birth sign. Men celebrate kanreki on their 60th birthday. The traditional calendar was organized on 60-year cycles. The cycle of life returns to its starting point in 60 years, and as such, kanreki celebrates that point in a man’s life when his personal calendar has returned to the calendar sign under which he was born. The celebration of this feat has been popular since the Edo period, and because it is connected to the idea of rebirth, it is customary to give the celebrant a red cap, a seat cushion, and a chanchanko vest similar to those they used as a newborn.

Ga No Iwai (or Toshiiwai)
Ga no iwai is a Japanese rite of passage celebrated at various ages to pray for long life. Since at least the sixteenth century, ga no iwai has been celebrated when one turns sixty (kanreki) seventy (koki), seventy-seven (kiju), eighty (sanju), eighty-one (hanju), eighty-eight (beiju), ninety (sotsuju), ninety-nine (hakuju), one-hundred (jōju), one hundred and eight (chaju), and one hundred and eleven (kōju).

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