How Birthdays Are Celebrated in Japan
Just like in English, it can be a bit too straightforward to ask for someone’s age on their birthday. But you can definitely ask about their birthday wishes! Because of customs like this, it’s extremely important you understand basic cultural etiquette before attending a Japanese birthday party. So, before we dive into the simple phrases you want to add to your “cool things to say in Japanese” box, let’s first take a look at how birthdays are celebrated in Japan.
Don’t Touch Someone Else’s Gifts
It goes without saying that no one should ever touch or open someone else’s gift. That’s a worldwide no-no! But let’s say you aren’t attending a party or social gathering in honour of the special birthday person. Instead, you see them at work, school, or another setting. In this case, if you have a gift to offer the person, you should hand it to them properly.
In Japanese culture, you should always hand someone a gift with both hands and a slight bow. Don’t be surprised if the person rejects the gift once or twice, either. This is just a way of being humble and polite.
Just like how you gave the gift with both hands and a bow, eventually, your Japanese colleague or friend will also receive the give with both hands a slight bow.
Birthdays Change as You Get Older
As a child, your parents will throw a party for you. As you get older though, different people of importance in your life will start to take charge. For example, in high school, if a boy has a girlfriend, he would be the one to take her out for her birthday.
And if you’re single, your friends are more likely to take you out or throw a birthday bash to honour you.
Special Birthdays in Japanese Culture
In Japan, you’re considered an adult when you turn 20. It’s also the age you can start to legally drink alcohol and are allowed to vote. So, it only makes sense that someone’s twentieth birthday causes for a big celebration.
Your sixteenth birthday is also a big one, though. When a person turns 16, the five cycles of the Chinese zodiac are completed. The person is then considered “reborn.”
The last birthdays to be hyper-aware about are the 77th birthday, 88th and the 99th. When someone turns 77 in Japan, they’ve reached the “happy age.” The 88th birthday is the “rice age,” and the 99th birthday is considered the “white age.”
“Happy Birthday” in Japanese: Your Guide to Celebrating Like a Native
Since you’re now equipped with the cultural knowledge you need regarding birthdays in Japan, let’s get into the fun stuff. Below you’ll find all the vocabulary you need for saying “happy birthday” in Japanese the right way!
お誕生日おめでとうございます — Happy Birthday (Formal)!
Maybe you’re already familiar with 敬語, which is “polite speech,” a cornerstone of speaking the Japanese language. This phrase is the politest way to give someone well wishes on their birthday! Plus, it’s great to use if you don’t know the person very well.
You may also notice the honorific prefix お for the word 誕生日 — “birthday.” This is known as 美化語, or also known as “Japanese elegant speech.”
Depending on the word, removing this honorific prefix may sound impolite or just plain off. So, to be safe, it’s best to leave the prefix and the word together.
お誕生日おめでとう — Happy Birthday (Casual)!
If you’re a good friend or family member of the person turning a year older, you can save yourself a few syllables and leave off ございます or even the お in 誕生日— “birthday.” This just gives a more casual, familiar vibe between the speaker and the listener.
ハッピーバースデー！— Happy Birthday!
Given how loan words are fairly common in the Japanese language, this one shouldn’t be much of a surprise! You can even mix and match and say, ハッピーお誕生日 — Happy Birthday! And of course, the happy birthday song in Japanese might be easier to sing than you think!