Kanreki: Japan's way of celebrating their sixtieth birthday

Understanding a Kanreki Celebration: Its definition and meaning

Sixty is a magical number in the Japanese culture, it is in this age wherein a person celebrates a Kanreki. To make better sense of the word, Kan means "return or cycle" and Reki depicts "calendar". It is said to be a celebration of being reborn or being a child again, it is also known as the beginning of second childhood. The Chinese Zodiac, also known as Jikkan Junishi, has 12 branches represented by the 12 animals of Chinese New Year and five natural elements such as metal, fire, Earth, water, and wood. Once a person has completed the 5 cycles of Jikkan Junishi, or a total of 60 years, he is to be born again, hence the Kanreki celebration. This system of counting Years, Months and Days was invented in China before the year 1100 BC. The Ancient Japanese has adopted this method of counting years since they also use the Lunar Calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.

It is also atypical on how they celebrate their birthday in Japanese culture. Traditionally, they don't celebrate it on the date when they were born rather every birthday is celebrated every New Year. It was not until the Second World War when they were influenced by the western culture of celebrating individual birthdays.

As a tradition, all duties and responsibilities as the head (as the Father or Mother) of the family are to be passed down to his successor (eldest son) and his wife. As symbolism, the mother passes the rice paddle to his son's wife to represent the transfer of responsibility as manager of the household.  For the Kanreki celebrant, it will be a time for reflection and an opportunity for a new beginning.

A Guide in preparing for a Kanreki Party

A Kanreki is normally hosted by the family and friends of the honoree. The celebrant is seated at a place of honor, wearing the color red. A feast is prepared by his family.

FOOD: It is considered a festivity with an abundance of food and drinks, food is to be prepared according to tradition in accordance with its symbolism. Special food during the Kanreki would comprise of: Kasane Mochi, it is a stack of Pink and white Mochi that symbolizes luck and purity. Tai or the red sea bream, this is a favorite dish in Japan, it represents happiness and festivity. They would normally present the fish as a whole, as cutting it would mean cutting the luck it brings. It can also be substituted by Ahi (Yellow Fin Tuna) or Aku (Skipjack Tuna). Sekihan, also a traditional dish, which is made of red azuki beans and rice. It is believed to bring good luck and eliminate bad spirits. Lastly, they usually serve Mochi, which is a glutinous rice cake that signifies strength and longevity.

DECORATIONS: As a custom, the cake of the celebrant is decorated with white cranes and red turtles. The white cranes, who are believed to live 100 years, represents noble and long life. On the other hand, the red turtles, who is believed to live 10,000 years, symbolizes endurance and longevity. Bamboo can also be seen during this celebration, as it embodies endurance and resilience. Moreover, Pines are also common at these parties, as it serves as a symbol of strength and courage. Lastly, Lobsters are never forgotten in preparing for this celebration, as its bent body represents old age, which corresponds to the youthful spirit and long life.

GIFT: Japanese rarely go to a party without carrying a gift for the celebrant. A meaningful gift, anything that is red, is to be presented to the person who is celebrating his or her birthday; one good example of an ideal gift for a Kanreki is a traditional red silk scarf or a red shirt. If a person opts to give a sweater, shirt or tie, it has to be color red. Commemorative gifts are also given to all the attendees of the Kanreki. Giri is the Japanese term for gift giving, it means giving back what a person receives. The recipient family would always keep track or record, and assigns values to every gift received. This record will be used as a basis for future gift giving as reciprocity to what was received before.

The Traditional Kanreki outfit: Vest and Hat

In celebration of the Kanreki, the honoree is dressed with Aka-chan, which literally means baby or "red one". The clothing of the celebrant consists of a red bouffant hat, also known as Boshi, and a red sleeveless vest, or what the Japanese normally call the Chanchanko. Red signifies the return to childhood. For Asian cultures, Red is a very important color as it usually symbolizes good luck and prosperity. The color red is also believed to represent warmth and to drive away evil spirits. The Zabuton is the cushion wherein the honoree sits during the celebration, it is also in color red. In some cases, a red fan completes the traditional outfit.

 Dohyo-iri: How Sumo Wrestlers celebrate their sixtieth birthday

In the world of Sumo Wrestling, a Yokozuna (the one with the highest rank in sumo) celebrates his sixtieth birthday at a traditional ring entering ceremony called Dohyo-iri. Dohyo is the Japanese term for the ring wherein sumo fights are held. It is usually performed at the Ryogoku Sumo Hall located in Tokyo. 

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The ceremony is usually held for Sumo Elders or the Toshiyori of the Japan Sumo Association. Instead of wearing a white Tsuna, the celebrant customarily wears red. A Tsuna is a heavy rope worn by a Yokozuna, it normally weighs 15 kg and is thicker at the front than the tied portion at the back.

During the ceremony, the Yokozuna is accompanied by two attendants namely: the Tsuyuharai or "dew sweeper" and the Tachimochi or "sword carrier". The Tsuyuharai precedes the Yokozuna then squats at the left side of the celebrant while the Tachimochi places himself at the right side carrying the Yokozuna's sword at his right hand, while the Yokozuna completes his ceremonial dance. Normally, the three wrestlers are led by the referee or what they would call the Gyoji. The sword of the Yokozuna signifies his status as a Samurai. 

Other important lifetime celebrations in Japanese culture


The Miyamairi, in its literal sense, means "shrine visit". It is a ceremony for newborn wherein they first visit a shrine. It is done anytime around the 30th to 100th day of the newborn. It is attended by the family and grandparents of the celebrant. During the visit, every attendee drinks a sip of Japanese Saki on a red cup and a Shinto priest dedicates a prayer for the baby.


In Japanese culture, it means "7-5-3". It is regularly celebrated every 15th day of November. It is another celebration of a milestone for children in Japan. It is celebrated differently for boys and girls, for boys, it is celebrated at the age of three and five, while for the girls it is at the age of three and seven.

There are three typical reasons why these ages are celebrated by Japanese children. First, these are the appropriate age wherein a child is given a Kimono, which are considered a symbolism for a milestone. Second, these numbers are considered lucky in Japanese numerology. Lastly, at the age three, they could begin to grow their hair as it was a noble tradition during the Heian period to shave the children's head before they reach the age of 3.

By Konstantin Papushin from Buffalo Grove, USA (Tokyo. What a doll!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On this day, they are to visit the nearest shrine wearing their kimonos. They are given lucky charms and specialized candies as gifts that represent health and growth. They are given "chitose ame" also known as a thousand year candy that symbolizes a thousand year of health. Then, they finish the celebration with a little feast at home and pictorials wearing their new kimonos.


If there are lucky ages, there are also unlucky ages in the Japanese culture; this is known as the Yakudoshi. To better understand the word, Yaku means calamity and Doshi are defined as years.  For women, it is during their 18th, 32nd and 36th year. On the other hand, for Men, it is on their 24th and 41st. As a way of driving away their bad luck, they usually pray at the Shinto shrine to ask for better luck. Traditionally, they prepare a small banquet with immediate family and friends to share the bad luck on their birth date.


For some culture, eighteen is the age of adulthood. But, for Japan, it is often celebrated at the age of twenty. It is normally held on the second Monday of January. The young adults would wear their Kimonos as this is another milestone for them. This age symbolizes the beginning of adulthood, wherein they could already vote and drink alcohol. Most Japanese parents consider this as a rite of passage and as a way of giving more responsibilities to their children.

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This is also known as the "white birthday", which is celebrated at the age of 99. There also other longevity celebrations aside from the Kanreki such as: koki or seventieth, kiju or seventy-seventh, sanju or eightieth, hanju or eighty-first, beiju or eighty-eighth, sotsuju or the ninetieth, hakuju or ninety-ninth, joju or the one hundredth, chaju or the one hundred eighth, and lastly koju or one hundred eleventh. These birthdays were considered special because of how it is amusing when written in kanji. Kanji is referred to as the Japanese writing system.

Japanese birthday as compared with the celebration in other countries in East Asia


For the Chinese culture, it is also significant to celebrate the sixtieth birthday. The celebrant is usually honored by preparing a festivity and whole day of merrymaking. Special food such as noodles and peaches are prepared on that day that depicts long life. When the noodles are cooked, it should not be cut short, for this means bad luck. Also, the Chinese never forgets to serve steamed buns that are large enough to be filled with little sweet buns. It is distinct on how these buns are to be presented to the celebrant: the large bun is opened to reveal the sweet little buns inside. Then, the small buns will be distributed to each of the family members that will mean giving good luck to them. Family, friends, and guests give money, two or four eggs, wines and cakes as gifts to the celebrant.


The age of sixty is also important for Koreans, they often celebrate it through their ceremony called Hwangap, and the children would often prepare a feast or banquet in honor of their parents. It is an important tradition since many years ago, Koreans don't get to live up to 60 years old. It is celebrated by the children offering their parents wine after bowing for respect, it is usually started by the eldest child to the youngest. This is often accompanied by traditional music, wherein guests and attendees are encouraged to drink.


For the Filipinos, birthday are usually celebrated on their Sixty Fifth. This is normally the retiring age for many Filipinos. The family and children of the retiree honor them by preparing a festivity, where all Filipino favorite food are served such as Lechon and Pancit (or the long noodles). It is a day filled with singing and dancing as the honoree prepares for his retirement.


Just like in the Japanese culture during the previous years, the Vietnamese people also celebrate their birthday on New Year's Day, or what they would call as "tet". According to tradition, individual birthday should not the celebrated but rather they will be a year older every New Year's day, without consideration of when they were actually born. On the mooring of tet, adults would traditionally give children red envelopes that have "lucky money" inside, congratulating them on becoming a year older. Gifts are given by their parents, siblings, and relatives.