From birth to old age, there are quite a number of life milestones celebrated in Japan. Many of these milestones have unique customs surrounding what to wear, what to eat, and what gifts to give. In this blog, we will introduce some of the milestones celebrated in the later years of a Japanese person’s life. Thanks to modern Japan’s remarkably high life expectancy, these once-rare events are being celebrated more and more often!
Kanreki – Life Starts Again at 60!
Our first later-life milestone, kanreki, occurs on a person’s 60th birthday. The word kanreki, consisting of the characters kan (return) and reki (calendar), refers to the fact that the cycle of 10 zodiac signs restarts every 60 years. This milestone is seen as a moment of rebirth because the zodiac returns to the same sign as the year you were born.
Traditionally, kanreki is celebrated with a meal hosted by the person’s family. The birthday person wears a red sleeveless vest called a chanchanko. This garment is typically worn by babies, so wearing it at kanreki reflects the person’s spiritual rebirth. Additionally, the color red is associated with childhood and warding off evil spirits in Japanese culture. In modern times, most Japanese 60-year-olds are still working professionals, so the tradition of dressing in baby clothes is less commonly observed. Instead, a red garment, such as a sweater or necktie, is often given as a gift.
Koki – A Rare Privilege!
Due to increased life expectancy in modern Japan, kanreki is now viewed as a celebration of life rather than a longevity celebration. As such, the real celebrations begin with koki, a person’s 70th birthday. The name koki comes from a line by the 8th century Chinese poet Du Fu, “Men seldom live to be seventy.” While Du Fu unfortunately didn’t live to see his own koki, his words live on through
this milestone, which is seen as a more full-fledged celebration of longevity than kanreki. Long life is celebrated at koki by wearing purple and wishing for more years, safety, and health for the person.
The Golden Years – 80 and 88
Sanju, a person’s 80th birthday, is so called because the character “san” (傘) contains the characters for eight (八) and ten (十). Both sanju and beiju (88) are celebrated by wearing gold, giving thanks, and wishing for more happy years for the person. Beiju, the name for a person’s 88th birthday, has a similarly witty origin; When you take apart the kanji character for bei (米), it reveals the characters for eighty-eight (八十八).
About the author:
Diarmuid is a writer and musician from Ireland, based in Tokyo. When not working on music in studios around the city, Diarmuid can be found in the bouldering gym, at the cinema, or enjoying a cold one in the local izakaya.