Seven Unique Celebrated Japanese Birthday and Milestones
Are Japanese birthdays celebrated the same way as Western birthdays? Yes and no. Regular birthdays in Japan look similar to those celebrated elsewhere. However, there are many birthdays in Japan that are considered cultural milestones, and they come with unique traditions.
In Japan, it’s not one’s date of birth so much as the age that one has reached that holds significance. Not unlike the “sweet sixteen” tradition in the southern US or the age 15 quinceañera in Latin America, certain ages in Japan are treated as rites of passage. Quite a few Japanese birthdays have distinct historical and cultural meaning and therefore come with special ceremonies or fanfare.
Let's go over characteristics of a birthday celebration, as well as some of the key Japanese birthday traditions and milestones.
History of Japanese Birthday Traditions
Prior to the 1950s, a Japanese baby was considered a one-year-old at birth. Every New Year’s Day, the most important holiday in Japan, all babies turned one year older. This communal, group batching approach to birthdays was replaced by the more individualistic Western system after the 1950s. These days, a Japanese baby is considered zero years of age at birth and turns one year older on their actual date of birth.
How do Japanese People Celebrate Birthdays?
A regular Japanese birthday celebration might look like an American one, but perhaps with less fanfare. There is a small gathering of people—often just the family—and a birthday cake. There may be some gifts and additional decorations. Often times there is no gathering at all, but a couple might go out on a birthday date to a restaurant. It’s not deal breaker to most Japanese people if the celebration takes place around the time of one’s birthday and not the exact day.
How do Japanese People Say “Happy Birthday”?
On birthdays in Japan, people tend to gather around the targeted celebrant and sing the “Happy Birthday” song in Japanese-accented English. Although there is a birthday song that could be sung in Japanese, it’s not as common. A wish for a happy birthday is generally given, which in informal Japanese is 誕生日おめでとう (tanjoubi omedetou) and in formal Japanese is お誕生日おめでとうございます (otanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu). The English phrase “Happy Birthday” is also used frequently.
Childhood Japanese Birthday Traditions
In the old days, with unfortunately high infant mortality rates, it wasn’t guaranteed that a baby would live to see another trip around the sun. That’s probably why certain milestones became a cause for celebration by the family and a way to thank the gods for looking out for their baby’s health. The childhood milestones below represent meaningful ages that have traditionally been marked by family celebrations in Japan.
Seven Days Old (お七夜 Oshichiya)
Historically, for a baby to make it to his or her seventh night of life was something to be thankful for. Not only is the oshichiya a time to give thanks for the baby’s health, but it is when the baby’s name is announced in a simple ceremony called the oshichiya meimeishiki.
For those who celebrate the oshichiya meimeishiki, the baby’s name is written on a scroll and displayed throughout the house. Guests come over and see the baby’s name spelled out in Chinese characters. They also ooh and aah over the baby, who is dressed in a white gown. Presents or money envelopes (shugibukuro) are often given. Traditionally, red bean rice (sekihan) and sea bream fish (tai) are served for good luck.
One Month Old (お宮参り Omiyamairi)
A visit to the local Shinto shrine, or omiyamairi, is expected at a baby’s one month mark. The baby is dressed in special garments called ubugi and the parents and grandparents bring in the baby for its very first shrine visit, known as the hatsumiyamairi. With the baby strapped to the mother or other relative, the priest carries out a short purification ceremony to bless the child with good health and fortune. The shrine gets a small stash of cash in return for performing this ritual.
One Hundred Days Old (お食い初め Okuizome)
On the 100th day after the baby’s birth, it is customary to hold a simple “first meal” ceremony called okuizome. This symbolic event is not about making the baby eat solid food, which is not advised until the baby is older. Rather, it is a celebration of the baby’s life so far and a hope for bountiful food for the entirety of the child’s future.
The okuizome meal includes rice, soup, simmered vegetables, pickled vegetables, and red snapper. Traditionally, the food is presented in red lacquerware, and the food is symbolically offered in a certain order. An interesting addition is a small stone (hagatameshi) that is presented to symbolize strong teeth. Chopsticks are often given as a present during okuizome.
One Year Old (一歳 Issai)
Age one is a milestone birthday that is uniquely celebrated in Japan. Similar to Western culture, Japanese people also have a birthday cake for the one year old. However, their version of a special birthday cake has a different meaning. The child is given a large, round mochi rice cake called isshou mochi. The child is asked to carry the heavy item on their back and in some cases step on it. The idea is that the child is both well fed by the rice bundle and also independently able to carry it or smash it. Often times the toddler tumbles while trying to carry the heavy isshou mochi, showing that he or she is still a cute and helpless baby.
Erabitori is another commonly held birthday tradition for a one-year-old. During the birthday party, several items are placed around the baby, such as a calculator, abacus, pen, chopsticks, wallet, or ball. Whichever object the baby chooses first is thought to foretell their future endeavor or talent. For example, if the child selects the pen, she might become a writer or artist. If he selects chopsticks, he might become a chef.
7-5-3 Years Old (七五三 Shichi-go-san)
Shichi-go-san literally means 7-5-3, three lucky numbers in Japan. When a birthday boy or girl is three, a boy is five, and a girl is seven years old, they are taken to the local shrine on November 15th. All dolled up in traditional garb, boys wear special outfits called hakama or haori, and girls wear kimono. It is a Japanese tradition for seven-year-old girls to wear an obi, a kimono sash, for the first time. Understandably, shichi-go-san involves lots of pictures being taken to capture the photogenic youngsters.
The shichi-go-san ceremony celebrates the health and longevity of a child, and there are special ways to signify a long life and good luck. One specialty is chitose ame, which means "thousand-year candy." A long life is hoped for with the long rope of candy that is placed in a bag decorated by turtles and cranes, animals representing longevity.
Adult Japanese Birthday Traditions
It’s not just children who are fêted when they turn certain ages; Japanese adults also get special attention on certain birthdays.
20 Years Old: (成年 Seinen)
Adulthood (seinen) in Japan has officially begun at age 20 since the Meiji era (1876). That age has recently been lowered to age 18, but the 20th birthday is still a momentous occasion. Even though 18-year-olds can now vote, sign a rental lease, or get married without a parent’s permission, they still can’t get an automobile driver’s license or buy cigarettes and alcohol until age 20. All that is to say that the 20th birthday in Japan is a big deal.
One’s passage into adulthood is recognized in a ritual called the Seijin Shiki, or ceremony of adulthood. On the second Monday in January, known as Seijin no hi (coming of age day), young adults turning 20 years old in that school year (April to April) show up at the city hall. The birthday celebrants often wear traditional outfits and listen to speeches about their rise to adulthood, then might go to a shrine to pray for good fortune. Others head straight to the bar to celebrate their independence with their friends!
Long Life Celebration Ages (長寿の祝い歳 Chouju no Iwai Doshi)
Old age is something to honor in Japan. Some particularly important Japanese birthdays are 60, 70, 77, 80, 88, 90, and 120. There are special colors, symbols, and meanings behind each of the ages, much like the way wedding anniversaries are marked in western cultures. Most of these birthday milestones are not important simply because they represent a ripe old age—there is more going on behind the scenes. For example, age 60 is referred to as kanreki, a time of rebirth and growth based on the Zodiac cycle restarting every 60 years.
In the Japanese language, some of the ages have auspicious meanings due to the way they look and sound when written out. For example, in its kanji character, the number eight (八) looks like it visually opens up at the base, inviting prosperity and opportunity. And when turned on its side, the number 88 looks like two infinity signs, which corresponds to a long and stable life.
Bokksu Celebrates Birthdays
A wonderful way to honor someone's birthday is to buy them a Japanese snack box subscription! Every month a gorgeous new box will show up at their house to delight them. Each box follows a different theme, and the contents include high quality crackers, cookies, cakes, candies, and teas from artisanal Japanese makers.
Another way to celebrate someone is to select a few handpicked items that correspond with some of the birthdays in Japan. For example, the Sakura Chopstick Rest Set would be adorable at baby’s “First Meal” Okuizome celebration. The pink cherry blossom shaped hashioki (chopstick rests) would also be a nice gift for a 3-year-old to mark the Shichi-go-san milestone.
What birthday celebrant wouldn’t like to be the honored guest (shokyaku) at a tea ceremony? You can bring the celebration to them with this Casual Tea Ceremony Set. The hand-crafted set includes all the necessary accoutrements made of beautiful natural materials: a handmade pottery tea bowl, bamboo whisk, tea container, and tea scoop.