Japanese Traditions Behind Celebrating First Birthday
Japan is a tradition-rich country; everything is jam-packed with traditions, from holidays to special occasions. So, it should be no surprise that there are many Japanese birthday traditions for a child's first birthday!
In Japanese culture, different birthdays signify different transition points in your life. This note remains true, even through adulthood, with birthday celebrations at 77 years old when people turn the "happy age," 88th birthday, etc.
The first year of birth is especially significant in Japanese culture as it is thought that this birthday sets the tone for the rest of their life. Parents can "peek" into their child's future through Japanese birthday traditions.
History Behind Japanese Birthday Celebrations
It's important to note that all birthdays in Japan were originally celebrated on New Year's Day. It was not until around 1950, with an uptick of western immigrants, that birthday celebrations for individuals came into play.
A birthday boy or girl is celebrated multiple times during their first year, setting the tone for their first birthday. Each child is celebrated at seven days, one month, and 100 days old.
Multiple traditions are put in place for the first birthday, including the infamous test where items are displayed, and the first item the child picks up delegates its future. However, the history of these Japanese birthday traditions is challenging to trace. It is believed they originated or at least have a connection to traditions in China and Korea. Below, you’ll find more information on Japanese birthday traditions for the birthday celebrant during their first birthday.
Two main Japanese birthday traditions occur for a baby's first birthday – isshou mochi and erabatori. We’re diving into isshou mochi first and everything it entails.
What is Isshou Mochi?
Isshou mochi is a large 2 kg mochi cake carried by babies on their first birthday. This tradition can occur one week prior to one week after the child's actual birthday.
The weight of the isshou mochi is specific to this tradition. A shou, a Japanese unit of measurement for rice or sake, equals 1.8 kg. When creating this birthday cake, exactly one shou (aka isshou) of glutinous rice is used to make this special mochi.
There are multiple ways to pursue this tradition. For some families, babies are meant to step on the cake. For other families, the cake is strapped to the babies’ backs. This changes based on the religion of the family. As this weight is quite heavy for a young child, most children tend to fall, which is a sign of good luck in Japanese culture.
There are a few reasons behind this tradition, starting with the babe's reaction, which signifies good or bad luck. It's also meant to teach one-year-olds that while life has ups and downs, some stumbling is okay.
Carrying the cake on their back means they will have food, health, and enman (a combination of harmony, peace, smoothness, happiness, satisfaction, completeness, and integrity) for the rest of their lives.
Depending on the region of the Japanese family, the isshou mochi tradition differs. Below are a few Japanese regions and how the isshou mochi event is different or similar in each region. It's important to note that isshou mochi may also fall under different names in various areas.
In Hokkaido, one-year-olds carry the isshou mochi in a furoshiki, a specific cloth meant to transport goods. It’s common in this region for the parents to trip the child as they walk with the Japanese mochi as there is a belief that falling during this tradition means the kid will stay in the house for longer before moving out.
In Hokuriku, the tradition includes the one-year-old carrying the cake on their back. You may also see parents in this area lightly spanking their kids with mochi.
Kanto offers the same variation as Hokkaido, with children carrying mochi in a furoshiki. It also includes the idea that if children fall, they’ll live in their parent’s house for longer.
Choguku residents pursue this tradition similarly to those in Kanto and Hokkaido. However, after the isshou mochi event, the children also partake in erabitori.
Isshou Mochi No Oiwai Experience
The experience typically begins with selecting a bag (or backpack) for your one-year-old to carry the isshou mochi. Isshou mochi cakes typically include the birthday celebrant’s weight and name.
You can also elect to purchase a cake in smaller pieces. Then, it’s time for the one-year-old to crawl or walk with the mochi on their back. As mentioned, falling in certain regions is good luck during this event.
How to Eat Isshou Mochi
The first step in preparing the large mochi cake is to slice it into smaller pieces. These more manageable pieces can be turned into other delicious recipes, including snacks and meals. A simple way to use some mochi is to pan-fry it until the exterior is crispy. Then, you can dip it in a homemade sauce.
Where to Get Isshou Mochi
You can find isshou mochi at most Japanese stores. You can find these cakes online if you don't live near a Japanese store. Keep in mind; that these are not cakes that you order last minute. Make sure to plan far in advance, especially if you want any special details added to the cake.
As mentioned, another special tradition occurs during a first birthday celebration in Japan. Instead of a typical birthday party, you'll find many Japanese families partaking in erabitori. This tradition, as mentioned above, includes setting out an array of items the child can choose.
What is Erabitori?
This Japanese tradition is a way for parents to tell the future about their one-year-old child. It involves setting up an array of items for the child to choose from. These items can include a calculator, pen, scissors, dictionary, money, a mirror, etc. Each item has a specific meaning when chosen.
The items that are put out for selection vary depending on the family. More recently, families are offering smartphones as an option signifying a future in technology.
Significance Behind Erabitori
The items selected during erabitori can help predict the personality, career, and even passions or talents of the child. It is typically discussed which areas of life erabitori will predict and how. For example, some parents will decide they want to foretell the career and talents of their child. So, the first item the child touches will note their personality, and the second is their career.
Here are a few common items found in an erabitori experience and their meaning.
If the child selects a calculator (or, in some cases, an abacus) first, that symbolizes that they will be good at math. It also may alert the parents that their kid may become a businessperson in the future.
As you might expect, scissors can signify a future career as a hairdresser. It can also mean that the child will become a designer. Regarding denoting other characteristics, it can mean that the child will be good creative.
If the baby chooses the dictionary, that usually means they'll be great students. It can even mean a future as a scholar.
Selecting money indicates that they will not have to worry about finances in the future.
Selecting a ruler can mean a future career in architecture or construction. It also can mean the child will be a diligent and orderly individual.
A ball usually symbolizes that the child will be good at sports with the possibility of becoming an athlete in their life.
As mentioned, if the child selects a smartphone, that signifies that they may enter a tech role as a career.
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