Kanreki: the 60th birthday in Japan

The Question

While living in Japan, I studied kanji and grammar for a few years, both as preparation for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and daily use. In the JLPT textbooks, I occasionally saw this word pop out:

60th birthday

60th birthday? A strange milestone, I thought. Wouldn’t 50 years, marking half a century, would make more sense? I was conscious of me having a bias as a Westerner, perhaps the Far Eastern countries had a system or some kind of luck associated with 60. But I had never seen the number 60 as an auspicious number anywhere else in my studies or travels in Japan. Also, the kanji read “return-calendar,” and the kanji are pretty high on the difficulty list (but not too difficult). I thought the kanji choice was strange, or mystifying. I did not bother to give it any much attention: I had many other kanji and words to worry about.

Fast forward a few years, and the word popped up in the newspaper I was reading. Reminded by my long-standing mystification, I finally decided to look it up by googling Japanese articles.

I finally understood, and it was simple, and the kanji made perfect sense.

The Answer

The short answer is: it is the completion of a cycle, or the returning, of the Chinese sexagesimal (60-year) calendar.

The long answer is:

In the Chinese lunar calendar, the calendar is made up by two separate cycles:

  • 12-year cycle (the Zodiac animals)
  • the lesser known 10-year cycle (elemental)

10k12s.pngThe 12-year calendar, with the animals, are on the left. The 10-year cycle, with five pairs of the elementals, is on the right.

We are much more familiar with the Zodiac calendar, where years are assigned an animal like Rat, Ox, Snake, Dragon, Rabbit, and so on. The Japanese still use this system derived from the Chinese, with a few modifications like switching Pig with Boar, an animal much more common in the forests and mountains of Japan.

The second cycle, the elemental one, has 10 years, but there are no animals, but two sides, or yin-yang, of five elements of Chinese thought. They are:

  • wood
  • fire
  • earth
  • metal
  • water

Each element, which the Chinese believed composed the stuff of the universe, has two brothers, yin and yang, giving us 10 years. It would be surprising if a Westerner knew about this cycle, but even the Japanese don’t know of this one either. It has disappeared from the national consciousness. Probably because there are no cute animals doted out to people’s birthdays.

So we have two cycles, one 12 years, and the other one 10 years. The cycles start at the same time, and they drift apart over the years, until…. they return to the exact same place where they started, 60 years later. Therefore, the return of the calendar.

Upon reaching one’s 60th birthday, the Japanese celebrate by donning on a funny, childish red vest and hat(ちゃんちゃんこ – chanchanko, or little, little kid), because red symbolizes a newborn, and the 60th birthday is thought to be a rebirth. I haven’t seen a 60th birthday celebration, and I have some ways to go before my own, but I want to see one!


Isn’t he adorable, like a baby?

The Two Cycles: Juuni-shi and Jikkan

Here’s the terminology for the two cycles, if you are interested.

12 year calendar: 十二支 (juuni-shi, or the 12 shi)

  1. 子         mouse
  2. 丑        cow
  3. 寅        tiger
  4. 卯        rabbit
  5. 辰        dragon
  6. 巳        snake
  7. 午        horse
  8. 未        sheep
  9. 申        monkey
  10. 酉        bird
  11. 戌        dog
  12. 亥        boar

10 year calendar: 十干 (jikkan or the 10 kan)

  1. 甲        kinoe              older brother of wood
  2. 乙        kinoto            younger brother of wood
  3. 丙        hinoe              older brother of fire
  4. 丁        hinoto             younger brother of fire
  5. 戊        tsuchinoe       older brother of earth
  6. 己        tsuchinoto     younger brother of earth
  7. 庚        kanoe              older brother of metal
  8. 辛        kanoto            younger brother of metal
  9. 壬        mizunoe          older brother of water
  10. 癸        mizunoto        younger brother of water

The jikkan, 10-year cycle, can be seen in business or law, or making lists. The party A is named 甲, the first on the list, and the party B is called 乙, the second. The third and fourth (丙、丁) are seldom seen, but they still are being used.

The 60 years are written with the 10-year cycle first and the 12-year cycle second. For example, 2017 is the fourth year of the 10-year cycle (丁)and the 10th of the 12-year cycle, the bird (酉). And it is written thus:

(hinoto-no-tori) or (teiyuu)

As you know, teiyuu won’t happen again until 60 years later.

Events Related to the 60-year Calendar

There are several significant events in Japanese and Chinese history that are marked by the sexagenary cycle:

  • 戊辰戦争    Boshin War in 1868, on the fourth year of the cycle “Boshin”
  • 壬申の乱 Jinshin War in 672, on the ninth year, “Jinshin”
  • 辛亥革命    Shingai War, in China, in 1911, on the 48th year, “Shingai”
  • 乙巳の変    Isshi Incidient, in 645, on the 42nd year, “Isshi”

The name of the famous Koushien high school tournament held every year near Osaka also came from the sexagenary. The first stadium was built in 1924, when it happened to be on the first year of the calendar, regarded to be very auspicious, and so they called the stadium 甲子園: the park of Koushi, the first year of the cycle.