“A kite breeding a hawk (鳶が鷹を産む),” meaning a splendid child born from common parents. Of course no parent thinks of their children as common, but you get the point (hopefully).
“God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.” ~Voltaire
“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso
“Let them eat cake.” ~Marie Antoinette
I am a Grandfather. Yes, I must put that in writing and mumble it to even myself. It helps convince me that I am already that old! My Granddaughter Elizabeth (“Baby Z” or “Eli”) just had her first birthday late last month, and after seeing the pictures of that mixed-cultural by still very American birthday celebration, I got to thinking about how the Japanese mark the occasion and recognize the milestone.
And, of course, like most other major life events, the Japanese have more formal and more rooted traditions and celebrations.
In Okinawa, the first birthday of a child is marked by a celebration called tanka-yu-eh, meaning, loosely, “1 year old celebration.” On this day the child’s family prepares a festive meal to share between relatives who have usually come from all around the island in order to celebrate together. And, of course like most other aspects of cultural celebrations in Japan, this particular celebration becomes a much more regal and grand celebration when a couple’s first child is male.
One of the central elements of the wider celebration is long-practiced ritual called tanka-uranai – the one year fortune-telling, designed to foretell generalized aspects of the child’s future. This can also be referred to as erabitori (選び取り), or loosely “pick & keep an item”). Certain items are placed on a tatami mat in front of the son-to-be toddler: a Japanese abacus, festive red rice, a book, ink and ink stone, money, and in case of a girl a pair of scissors is added. The baby is turned loose to make his or her way to the item of their choice; all the while, the eager and anxious family members hold their breath in attempts to contain their desire to influence the fortune!
So, the first item the child reaches for and touches – NOT the one he or she ends up with – prophesies potential for the youngster. If the abacus (generally a calculator in more modern times), the youth will become a fellow mathlete (I have been accused of being worse!), which presages a strong business sense. Red rice (or chop sticks) forecasts plentiful food throughout a long life or culinary skill, while a book or dictionary portends a studious nature leading to a solid education for the child. Money or a wallet, perhaps the most obvious elements, predicts a life of riches, while the ink and ink stone divines a livelihood in writing. Some families have also recently started adding a musical instrument as a way to forecast for talent (music, signing, acting), a ruler to predict successful homeownership, and a game ball or sports shoes to prefigure an athletic career.
Finally, for girls turning one, scissors are meant to imply a future as a good housewife and mother, or, what I like to refer to as a “Domestic Engineer.” Funny thing about sexism in Japan: the kanji (姦) for kashimashii (noisy/boisterous) is made up of the symbol for “woman,” but not just one woman. Not two women. No. There are three women (three “woman” symbols). What happens when you have three women together? Of course, they get really noisy. C’mon ladies; everyone knows that to be an absolute truth (wink)!
In wider Japan outside of Okinawa, there is also another tradition that is only once in a lifetime on hatsu tanjo (初誕生), or “first birthday.” Although many if not most of our western birthday customs have been thoroughly adopted here in Japan, most Japanese parents continue to celebrate this special day with one or a pair of red-white birthday rice cakes, tanjo mochi (誕生餅). Here in the Kyushu province of Japan, this particular cake is known as mochi fumi (餅踏み, mochi stepping), and the custom entails the birthday child stepping on the mochi wearing baby-sized waraji (草鞋, straw sandals).
However, in the rest of Japan, this mochi is commonly known as shoi or seoi or issho mochi (一升餅). In most areas of Japan, the children carry the mochi on their back or shoulder, either in a bag or bundled up with a furoshiki (風呂敷, wrapping cloth). Issho is a unit of old Japanese liquid measurement equivalent to ~1800cc, so the mochi are crafted to weigh around 1.8kg (almost 4 pounds exactly), a pretty heavy load for a baby! And, in a strange twist, some parents attempt to deliberately interfere or prevent their child from walking or crawling smoothly with light pushes, an early attempt at educating children about the bumpy ride of life, full of its ups and downs. While this may seem an odd way to “happily” celebrate a first birthday, by carrying out this ritual, good-natured parents can extend their wishes that their child be blessed, throughout their life, with enman (円満), an affirmative word representing perfection, harmony, peace, smoothness, completeness, satisfaction and integrity.
For my Granddaughter, I too wish her to be blessed with plentiful and long-lasting enman. But, I can’t help but wonder what she would have “picked and kept” if the tanka-uranai items were placed in front of her. What would YOU want your precious one-year-old to choose??
Anything but scissors, right?!
Happy First Birthday, Baby-now-Toddler Z!!