Japanese Birthday
November 1, 2010 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Japanese Birthday customs

For my girlfriend's 40th this year, I'm going to do a Japanese themed birthday party. I have some japanese recipes I'm going to make (as well as getting some sushi to go with it) but I was wondering if anyone could tell me about Japanese customs when it comes to birthday celebrations.

How is it different than people in the states? How do you pronounce happy birthday in Japanese? Is there a certain music the Japanese play during a birthday celebration?

I also am going to dress the kids up (hopefully) for the birthday, too. I will have the girl dress up in a Kimono but I'm having trouble coming up with something authentic for the boy.

Also, what type of dessert goes well for a Japanese Birthday?

Thanks for any and all tips you can give me!
posted by Hands of Manos to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite



oh! may






(happy birthday in a form that might just be recognizable to your girlfriend)

Also: Google up some "Enka" music and download away. This might get you some giggles from your GF.

Dessert: I always saw simple stuff, never anything elaborate. But a bottle of Calpis always seemed to be present.
posted by circular at 12:38 PM on November 1, 2010

Oh, and I guess what I gave you is a bit formal...periodically raise the glass of Calpis to your lips, wink at her, and whisper "oh may debt oh" like a handsome foreigner.
posted by circular at 12:45 PM on November 1, 2010

Kanji - 誕生日おめでとう 
Hiragana - たんじょうびおめでとう
Romanji - tanjou-bi Omedetou

"birthday congratulations"

Pronounciation: Ta-n-joe-bee Oh-meh-deh-doe

That "n" is the hardest to say for english speakers. I can't even give you advice on how to pronounce it other then to say the N only in "no".

E isn't pronounced like Me or Dee. It's more akin to an Maa or Daa.. but not quite.

Have fun! :)
posted by royalsong at 12:48 PM on November 1, 2010

A chance would have it, I was talking about birthdays with a Japanese the other day, and trying to explain what happens to a mutual friend. The long story short was that birthdays are much less celebrated than those in the 'States might be accustomed to, with "celebrations" largely confined to the realm of a family meal with only your closest friends. Compared to the story I told of how I filled a housemate's bedroom with balloons a la Patch Adams, it's not much.

This said, Japanese do have a penchant for small, perfectly formed cakes. Here's a typical example.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 3:53 PM on November 1, 2010

Japanese-American girl here.

No offense to royalsong or circular, but I disagree with their pronunciation. I would say otanjobi omedetou is pronounced closer to oh-tahn-JOH-bee oh-meh-dheh-toh. If you were trying to enunciate each particular syllable, it would sound very different, but for actual speaking, I would say everything mildly slurs together to approximately what I've written out.

Unless it's for a very specific birthday, say the twentieth or sixtieth, there really aren't any specific customs attached to birthday celebrations. At most, you'd go out for dinner, get a Western-style cake, and sing Happy Birthday with a Japanese inflection ("Hapi basude tsu yuuuuu!"). Dressing in kimono is definitely not a common practice for birthdays. (Although, just so you know, there are kimono for men as well; it looks different, but the term is the same.) More common would be to just ignore the day altogether. If you actually want an "authentic" feel, just kick back with a small group and lots of Japanese food, sake, and beer. Set up a karaoke machine if you feel the need.

I'd also get a cake, maybe get something a little more elegantly decorated than your average grocery store birthday cake. Bakeries specializing in Western desserts are very popular in Japan, and the offerings tend to taste slightly less sweet, but look very elaborate and sophisticated. Japanese food in general puts a high premium on presentation.

Oh, and if you want to play enka, it will definitely scream "JAPAN!!!" and that's fine, but it's worth pointing out that it's also rather old-fashioned and might make your girlfriend feel like she's at a birthday party for someone in her parents' generation. Personally, I like it, but it's something to think about. Along somewhat similar lines, don't decorate with chrysanthemums, because they're associated with funerals.

Of course, I'm writing all this under the assumption that your girlfriend is Japanese and might care about this stuff. If she isn't, then I'd say forget about trying to make things "authentic", since the reality is boring, but don't go crazy with the Japanese stereotypes either. If you just want a Japanese-themed party, feel free to put up some paper lanterns and chow down on the sushi, but please don't dress up the kids in kimono or go around pretending to be Japanese, because then you're tiptoeing perilously close to yellowface, and things start feeling deeply weird.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:57 PM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Celebrating birthdays is very much an imported event and not something typically done historically. As a result, the typical trappings around birthday celebrations are the same as in the West -- presents, singing, cake, etc.
posted by armage at 4:14 PM on November 1, 2010

Like armage points out, until around the early 1900s when a law was passed to change the system into the Western style, most Japanese people never kept track of of their exact birthdates. Everyone was one year old the moment they were born, and everyone aged together on New Year's Day. This system is called kazoe-doshi. So the most extreme example of this would be of a baby born on December 31, who would immediately turn 2 the next day. So if you really wanted to "be" Japanese, tell your girlfriend she isn't really turning 40, but 41. I'm sure she'll get a real kick out of that. (I'm kidding.)

So there are still a lot of examples of really famous historical figures, even those who lived fairly recently in the 1800s like Okita Soji of the Shinsengumi, whose exact birthdates aren't clear.

In a nutshell, what Diagonalize said. But without enka. Enka is awful. Omedeto to your girlfriend!
posted by misozaki at 4:41 PM on November 1, 2010

Get a cake with a bunch of strawberries on top.
posted by you zombitch at 5:25 PM on November 1, 2010

decorate with cherry blossoms!
Buy mochi ice creams for dessert
Dress up your boy with traditional japanese boy kimono OR a samurai! I bet he'd like that. Who doesn't like waving a kendo sword around?

Also, wrap her present in a nice square of fabric instead of wrapping paper! (it's called furoshiki)

have fun!

and please no enka...
posted by p1nkdaisy at 5:40 PM on November 1, 2010

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