Nippon Day Eleven: Birthdays

Otanjoubi Omedetou (Happy Birthday) to me! Okay, it’s not today, but it is this weekend! I shall be hitting a number in my mid twenties that is quite respectable. Although I still won’t be 27, which is the age everyone has been guessing I was since I turned 16 (I can’t help it if I’m mature). However, I have great hopes that people will stop asking if I remember that commercial from 1987 or do a double take when I tell them my age. Is that to much to ask for? 

I have never been one of those people who isn’t big on birthdays. In fact, the only holiday I dislike is Columbus Day, and I still enjoy the long weekend. I’m the sort of person who says things like, “Hey my birthday is in x-number of days” starting about two months beforehand. I’ve had a ridiculous amount of luck in never having had to go to school or work on my b-day, thanks to it being right around Martin Luther King Jr. Day and my changing work schedules. Since I’m more or less self-employed now even if my birthday wasn’t on the weekend I wouldn’t be working anyway. I will be eating pineapple-up-side-down cake and lasagna, my traditional meal. Being the youngest of four siblings, even if I’m going to be a quarter of a century old, I can still expect plenty of “baby of the family” attention. Yeah, being the youngest is awesome. 

I am most fortunate in having been born just far enough after Christmas that people have recovered a little and will remember what they missed on my Christmas list. Though when I was a little kid I always wished I was born in the summer so I could have a beach party. However, I grew out of that after having an indoor pool party and remembering that I don’t like parties or swimming. I’d much rather stay in and force my family to watch cartoons (I know I said I was mature earlier, but I forgo maturity on my birthday). 

Anyway, I didn’t start writing this email just to fish around for birthday recognitions (although, if you scroll down there is a comment section for such things). I decided that to celebrate the occasion on my blog I would look into how they celebrate birthdays in Japan. It might surprise you to learn that they didn’t celebrate them until the 1950s. In fact, the whole concept was completely foreign as the people of Japan considered New Year the day that everyone collectively became a year older rather than the day they were born. You could call New Year the national birthday. I suppose this does make a level of sense, especially since in Japan they follow the Chinese zodiac. People used to keep track of ages by what animal year a person was born in. Therefore, if someone asked me how old I was I might say “I was born in the year of the horse”. Since it’s a bit obvious that I’m not 13 or 37 they could safely assume I was 25. 

The concept of a national birthday pretty much lapsed after World War Two, as western influence spread over Japan. Today, birthday parties are mostly for children, planned by the kid and their parents. Those parties probably look pretty similar to those in the west, with a cake, a song, and turning the lights out to blow out the candles (the number of which is however old you are turning). Sounds pretty standard, yes?

But this doesn’t mean that once you are grown up you can’t enjoy your birthday. However, responsibility for the festivities moves to your friends, so you better hope you have some. Instead of someone saying, “Hey it’s my birthday on Tuesday, everyone is invited to my place for pizza and cake” it would be “Hey, Kenshin’s birthday is on Tuesday, we should take him out this week”. The birthday person is then treated to dinner, usually at a restaurant or an izakaya (pub). This is so popular, that most eateries keep cakes and candles on hand for such parties. In all my research I didn’t see any mention of gifts being given by friends, but I’m guessing that just depends on how close your friends and you are. 

If your friends are planning you a party in Japan, it is likely to not be on your exact birthday, which is usually reserved for the significant other. Mostly it is a time for a date or maybe even spending the whole day together. According to, Japanese women often have high expectations for their birthdays and if the parter does not deliver they won’t complain but will probably dumb the offender (I'm guessing this is for casual relationships). America is pretty famous for our love of large presents (either in quantity or quality), but in Japan even just a card is acceptable. However, accessories are usually the preferred gift as they can be worn everyday to remind the recipient of their loved one. Isn’t that sweet?

I’m single (and happily so) and most of my close friends live too far away to take me to dinner, so a grown up Japanese birthday is unlikely. Luckily, I happen to love my own traditions, it is the only day of the year that I eat my favorite food and watch my favorite movies. Most of my best birthdays have been during blizzards, but since I’m staying at someone else’s house right now and need to drive back home I suppose I shouldn’t hope for that. But I wouldn’t say no to a bit more snow on the ground. When I was a little kid we lived in Alaska and it just seems weird to have this little snow in January. Either way though, I intend to enjoy my birthday!

Until next time, Otanjoubi Omedetou (Happy Birthday) to me!