What do you usually do on your birthday? Perhaps you receive presents, everybody wishes you many happy returns, and maybe you even throw a party. Do you find that you continue to celebrate your birthday as you get older? No doubt your answer to these questions depends on which country you are from. In the west, people tend to regard someone’s birthday as a very important day that should be celebrated, even if the person is elderly! However, it is not that way in every country. What about Japan? What are some Japanese birthday traditions and customs, and how do they differ from what we might be used to?
Birthdays are acknowledged in Japan, but it might surprise you to hear that they were not celebrated until after the Second World War! After the 1950s, there was an enormous influx of American and other western cultures such as fashion, food, and celebrations such as Christmas. Celebrating one’s date of birth was another aspect that stuck. One reason why Japan didn’t celebrate birthdays before is that Japan in general tends to focus on the group rather than the individual, and birthdays are seen as a personal and private affair.
The concept of celebrating the day you were born was initially a foreign concept. Before, the Japanese had only one ‘birthday’, which was the New Year’s Day, since everyone believed that they got older on that day and celebrated together. New Year remains a very special day in Japan and the old custom of giving children and teenagers money as a congratulatory gift endured. In the past seventy years, however, the concept of a birthday is well rooted in Japan. So how do they celebrate it?
Nowadays, Japanese people mainly celebrate their children’s birthdays. Parents organize a more or less small gathering, a cake, usually a white Victoria sponge with cream, is customary, and the number of candles depends on the age the birthday boy or girl is turning. The Happy Birthday song (in English, as there is no Japanese equivalent) is sung in the dark and the candles have to be blown out. This part is very similar to the western way.
However, that does not mean that adults do not jubilate over it at all! It is customary for friends to organise a party for the one who has a birthday, and all bills are covered by the guests, in order to let the person, whose birthday it is, to enjoy the day without worrying about money. This actually makes sense as paying for the event counts as a group “gift”.
Interestingly, there are several special days throughout the year as well as New Year that celebrate getting older. These include 7-5-3 day, where girls aged seven and three and boys aged five and three are dressed in kimonos and taken to shrines to pray for health and a long, happy life. They are also given a “chitose ame”, or thousand-year candy to wish for a thousand years of health.
Another festival linked with birthdays and getting older is Coming of Age day, which focuses on Japanese youths reaching adulthood at the age of 20. It is held on the second Monday of January and young adults who turned 20 before the following April 1st or will turn 20 on or after the following April 2nd dress in kimonos or suits and go to the city office to be officially recognised as adults. After that, they usually celebrate by going out drinking with their friends.
On the other hand, Japanese couples tend to reserve their actual birthday day for their partners. Generally, they go on a date and spend the day or evening together to celebrate. Many Japanese women expect their partners to get them a special gift and will also buy their boyfriends or husbands one to show their love and affection. Gifts like accessories are popular since they can be worn practically every day and can remind them of their boyfriend or girlfriend.
Since women in Japan will often reserve the whole day to celebrate it together with their partner, most will not complain or say anything if they end up doing nothing, but will be privately disappointed or complain to their friends and family about it. They also may be likely to dump their partner if such failure takes place. If you are dating a Japanese woman, never ever forget her birthday!
However, don’t feel the need to spend a fortune if you are dating a Japanese person and their birthday is coming up. A card and a cake will be sufficient and there are many special and affordable things to do that will make your partner’s birthday will be an unforgettable one. For example, a romantic walk in the park, a meal somewhere nice, or a day trip would work well. They would be most happy that you remembered their special day and put some effort into making it special for them.
Were you surprised by the differences in Japanese and western birthday celebrations? If you live in Japan and someone special you know has a birthday coming up, don’t forget to keep these customs in mind! You should also wish your Japanese friends a happy birthday by saying “Otanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu!”