I recently learned from my wife, who is Japanese, that her parents will be celebrating reaching the age of 77 this summer. Outside of their birthdays, reaching 77 years in one’s lifetime is a special occasion, one that is called “Kiju” in Japanese. As this was new to me, I spent time researching this topic, as its history and concept intrigued me. Today, I will share with everyone this custom of celebrating longevity.
The word Kiju, which is written as “喜寿” in Japanese, has a unique meaning, which is “celebration of happiness”. The choosing of the character to represent the number 77 is not random, for it is culture-related, as well as literacy-related. Let’s go first into the history of Kiju, then move on to its unique theory, as well how it is treated as a celebration.
LIFE OF LONGEVITY
Kiju is the recognition of living a long life. It is part of a list of age ranges/years of living¹ that are revered as representing a life of longevity called “Chōju²”. The practice of Chōju is old, although the different ages were added over time, one as recent as the 21st century. The age ranges, along with their names and meanings, recognized under Chōju are the following³:
60 = Kanreki (還暦)
66 = Rokuju (緑寿)⁴
70 = Koki (古希)
77 = Kiju (喜寿)
80 = Sanju (傘寿)
88 = Beiju (米寿)
90 = Sotsuju (卒寿)
99 = Hakuju (白寿)
100 = Momoju/Kiju (百寿/紀寿)
108 = Chaju (茶寿)
111 = Kōju (皇寿)
120 = Daikanreki (大還暦)
As with Kiju, these numbers and the characters associated to them are not random, for they each have special meanings and methodologies in remembering what they mean. Since the life expectancy was generally lower than 60 due to the lack of nutrition and vaccination, as well as hard life conditions during medieval Japan, much praise and an expression of good fortune is acknowledged to those who did live 60 years & up.
MEANING OF KIJU
As mentioned earlier, Kiju stands for the celebration of happiness. The kanji (Chinese-derived characters) that is pronounced “ki” stands for “happiness⁵”. Interestingly, it is also the representative of the number “77”, at least in this case. When the numerical numbers are written in kanji, it looks like so:
The characters for 77, which are pronounced “nana-ju-nana” in Japanese.
Inspiration of the use of the kanji “ki” was from how it was written in the past, which was more cursive. The 2 pics below depict the character “ki”, with the first one written in textbook block style called “kyōkashotai”, and the second in the older cursive style called “sōshotai⁶”:
The character 喜 in kyokashotai (教科書体)
The character 喜 in soshotai (草書体)
If you look carefully, it looks like it is made up of the numbers “七十七”, which would be like so:
The visual imagery of 七十七 (the characters for 77) in the cursive-written style of the character “ki”.
It’s a bit of a stretch to actually “see” those numbers, especially since the character “ki” is not written as so anyway, but this is what influences the use of this character to represent 77 years, along with the meaning.
COLOR OF KIJU
As most things in Asian culture, there are colors associated to each of the age ranges in Chōju. For Kiju, it is the color purple. In the past, it was traditional to wear a sleeveless vest or kimono jacket called chanchanko⁷, along with a special bōshi (hat)⁸. As Kiju would be the theme, this vest and hat would be the color purple. Other items and accessories, such as a sensu (folding fan)⁹, zabuton (pillow)¹⁰, and kozuchi (small wooden mallet)¹¹ would also accompany one’s outfit. You can also adorn yourself in regular clothing that are purple.
Illustration of the celebration of Kiju, with the couple dressed for the occasion. By acworks (free).
CELEBRATING THE OCCASION
There is no set date for Kiju, so people can choose anytime within the year to celebrate, whether it be on their birthday, on “Keiro no Hi¹²”, and so on. Usually family members and friends will have a small gathering or meetup where they celebrate those who are 77 years of age while eating a nice meal. Other means of celebration can also include taking a small trip, going to the onsen (public bath house)¹³, and so on. A family celebration is planned this summer for my parents-in-law, but they also have another Kiju-related celebration planned amongst them and their classmates from elementary school. Talk about keeping in touch!
Gift giving is generally not associated with Kiju, or Chōju as a whole for that matter. However, there are some businesses and on-line services that try to promote their products as gifts for the occassion. This ranges from flowers, cards with warm wishes, to portraits & pictures.
I hope my parents-in law continue to stay healthy pass their 77th birthdays. We should honor all those who are 77 years old and wish them many happy blessings. Kiju has a positive meaning to it, and I hope I too can live long enough to reach this age. Special thanks to my wife contributing the written characters with her calligraphy skills!
1) There are 2 ways to observe Chōjū: kazoedoshi (数え年) and mannenrei (満年齢). Kazoedoshi is a traditional East Asian method for counting age by first considering a newborn 1 years old, then adding one more year on the following new years day. This essentually makes you 1 year older than you actually are. On the other hand, mannenrei is in line with how age is calculated in Western countries, where a newborn’s 1st birthday is 12 months after the day he/she is born.
In the past, kazoedoshi was the primary way to celebrate Chōju, but in modern times mannenrei is the chosen way.
2) 長寿. Chōju is believed to have started sometime during the Muromachi period (1336~1573) with the ages 60, 70, 77, and 88. Over time, more ages were incorporated.
3) The numbers presented for one’s age in Chōju follows that of mannenrei (exact age). If under kazoedoshi (added years) , then you would need to subtract one year from your actual age accordingly to get the “traditional” age.
4) Rokuju is a new addition to Chōju, as it was established in September of 2009 by the Japan Department Store Association (日本百貨店協会).
5) Depending on context, it can stand for “happiness”, “pleasant”, “rejoice”, and so on. Usually the kunyomi (Japanese phonetic) of this word is used, which is “yorokobu”. Basically, it is used to express when something is good for you or someone, or if you are expressing joy over something.
6) 草書体. This is a cursive, script-like style of writing kanji. Often translated as “grass” kanji. A much older, artistic style of writing, nowadays practiced by those learning Shodō (書道, Japanese calligraphy).
7) ちゃんちゃんこ. A sleeveless haori (羽織, short jacket), this type of upper wear was traditionally good for while being active due to its lightweight, or to stay warm during wintertime as an innerwear under a heavier coat.
12) 敬老の日. Annually recognized on the 3rd Monday of September, it is a special day that honors the elderly and encourages the nation to give respect to them.