If you’re interested to learn how to say “Happy Birthday” in Japanese in different styles, you’ve come to the right place!
As a language learner and cultural connoisseur, it’s super important to honor and celebrate your friends. Good friends in your target language are essentially your teachers, after all. Plus, using language in a celebratory spirit is a good practice for cadence in emphatic speech.
In light of these things, today’s article talks about the importance of the Japanese birthday and how to say “happy birthday” in Japanese. You may be in for a surprise to learn just how intricate Japanese birthdays can be!
- 1 The Different Ways to Say “Happy Birthday” in Japanese
- 2 The History of Birthdays in Japan
- 3 How to Celebrate a Japanese Birthday – Japan vs The West
- 4 The Special Birthdays in Japan
- 5 Other Important Birthday Vocabulary and Phrases in Japanese
- 6 Is There a “Happy Birthday” in Japanese song?
- 7 Wrap Up
The Different Ways to Say “Happy Birthday” in Japanese
There are only two ways to say “happy birthday” in Japanese:
The first is おたんじょうびおめでとう (o tanjoubi omedetou | お誕生日おめでとう). This is definitely the most common way to wish someone a happy birthday in Japanese. It literally translates as “congratulations on your birthday.” This Japanese “happy birthday” is what you’d say to any of your friends or anyone within your social circle whose big day it is.
There is an alternative to this expression, which is おたんじょうびおめでとうございます(otanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu｜お誕生日おめでとうございます). This is the polite form of the Japanese happy birthday expression, which gets used when addressing elders or higher-ups. It can also be used for people who you’re not so well-acquainted with.
In general, the ending suffix ございます(gozaimasu) makes an expression more polite. This closing is probably most commonly known for its existence in the expression ありがとうございます(arigatou gozaimasu), which is “thank you very much in Japanese.”
Using formal Japanese expressions can always be accomplished to create a more respectful atmosphere with whomever you’re communicating with. But don’t be too respectful with friends, or it might seem like you want to create a distance between your relationship!
Note: If we are to break down the components of this phrase, たんじょうび (tanjoubi｜誕生日) would mean “birthday,” and おめでとう(omedetou) would basically mean “congratulations.” That ございます(gozaimasu) makes it extra polite, as we pointed out before. You can congratulate someone for anything in Japanese by simply saying おめでとう (omedetou) or おめでとうございます (omedetou gozaimasu).
The next one is ハッピーバースデー (happii basudei). Sounds familiar? Yes. Japanese birthday traditions is such a borrowed phenomenon that Japanese people literally say “happy birthday” to one another! The カタカナ (katakana) is proof of the loan word’s foreign nature.
Of course, it’s done uniquely with its own Japanese accent, but still. This Japanese birthday greeting is also only used among relatives and close friends – you wouldn’t use this with your boss! It’s a more formal version of that good ol’ birthday wish.
Before we head on to the history of Japanese birthdays, feel free to visit or re-visit our article on the Japanese alphabet if reading the words in Japanese gets a bit difficult. This is if you want to practice reading in Japanese. Of course, you can always read them with the romanized spelling (romaji) beside each word, too!
The History of Birthdays in Japan
Celebrating a birthday was not always as big in Japan as it is today. In fact, until around 1950, individual birthdays in Japan weren’t celebrated at all! As we all know, who study and observe contemporary Japanese culture, the group always comes before the individual.
Society is more like one big family than anything else, and one should put their family members before themselves. This has been the well-grounded mentality of Japanese people for centuries.
Traditionally, the Japanese of old thought it was more honorary to celebrate the New Year instead of individual birthdays.
The logic was that everyone became one year older or had a birthday at the turn of a new year! Not until the influence and integration of Western culture did celebrating birthdays become a thing – we’ll speak a little more about that in just a moment.
How to Celebrate a Japanese Birthday – Japan vs The West
In modern Japan, the Japanese celebrate birthdays in a rather similar way to Western-style celebrations (since that’s where it was borrowed from). There is always a birthday cake with candles at a 1:1 ratio, matching the age of the birthday celebrant.
Gifts and birthday cards are offered, and “happy birthday” is sung. If people are to go out, the guest of honor is always treated and never spends a dime (or yen). Oh, and of course, there’s a gathering of family and friends for the special occasion.
There are also some notable differences between the two birthday cultures, though. Firstly, the Japanese have what is considered to be the proper cake for birthdays – usually some form of strawberry shortcake. Anything else just wouldn’t be appropriate!
Also, somewhat surprisingly, celebrations for adult birthdays usually don’t take place on the actual birthday! It is presumed in Japan that someone might wish to spend their birthday with their significant other (if they have one), so the big celebration happens a few days before or afterward.
Even high schoolers get this treatment just in case they’re in a relationship! In that light, Japanese birthdays are really about romance between lovers! But for the sake of what this article intends, we’ll be focusing on the things that are done as a birthday celebration.
The Special Birthdays in Japan
Now, in case it isn’t obvious, there is also great importance placed on numbers within Japanese society: The number “4” is often avoided and thought to be associated with death due to its pronunciation.
You’d never give a gift that comes in four, and even most older buildings in Japan technically don’t have a fourth floor. “5” is thought to be a lucky number representing peace and harmony as it reflects the five elements.
There’s even an entire field of Japanese cosmology based on it! Oh, and of course, everyone knows the story of the 1000 cranes. Well, birthdays are no different. There are a number of especially significant birthday years for the Japanese!
Special Kids Birthdays
Let’s start with the birthday celebrations for children in Japan. Here are some rituals that are uniquely Japanese.
いっしょうもち (isshou mochi | 一生餅)
This is a lesser-known tradition that’s very telling about Japanese olden rituals. At the turn of around one-year-old, Japanese kids often celebrate their birthday with いっしょうもち(isshou mochi | 一生餅).
For this tradition, the celebrated is given two rather heavy rice cakes in the auspicious colors of red and white, weighing about 5 pounds in total. Then, the rice cakes are strapped to the back of the baby before they are to walk with the heavy backpack!
Of course, a one-year-old with froggy knees carrying over half of their weight is expected to topple rather quickly. And that’s exactly what most families of backpackers are aiming for.
It is believed that if a child falls over with their (mochi), or rice cakes, they will never stray too far from the nest in their life. Meanwhile, some families are delighted to see the perseverance of their beloved baby in holding up so much weight. It all depends on the lineage and individual.
The second part of this tradition involves what is known as もちふみ (mochi fumi｜餅踏み), which translates as “stepping on the mochi.” We’re not exactly sure why this is done – it originated in the Kyushu region of Japan at some point and usually involved the traditional わらじ (waraji｜草鞋) or straw rope sandal.
えらびとり (erabitori｜選び取り), which literally means “choosing and taking,” is a secondary part of this celebration that involves the celebrated child choosing between a set of cards. Each of the cards carries a picture that is believed to represent the path that child will take in life.
For example, if the child chooses the calculator, it could represent a good business fortune in the future. It’s tough to discern what card is truly chosen sometimes, so some parents decide to utilize a “first touch” rule.
Note: The term いっしょうもち (isshou mochi｜一生餅) is actually a punny play on words that the Japanese love and adore so much. 一生 (isshou), when written as such, translates as “for one’s entire life,” signifying the depth and intention behind the festivity in total.
But this Japanese word can also be written as 一升 (isshou), which means “one measurement” of an antiquated measurement unit. As it turns out, the two mochis for the celebration should actually weigh 一升! Pretty full circle, huh!?
November 15th marks the celebration of this Japanese holiday festival. しちごさん (shichi | 七五三) literally reads “seven, five, three.”
On this day, girls of seven years old, boys of 5 years old, and both genders of 3 years old are celebrated. This festival is really more of a birthyear celebration than a birthday celebration.
In Japanese culture, these years signify important growth markers in life. They are also all odd numbers which are thought to be lucky in Japan. Children in the celebration dress up in their finest clothes – traditionally, girls in kimonos and boys in hakama – and visit local shrines to pray for their own health and happiness.
These kids are also gifted candy known as ちとせあめ (chitose ame｜千歳飴). 千歳飴 means “thousand-year candy” and is meant to ensure the longevity of the children who receive it.
For further emphasis on this point, the candy is adorned with images of turtles and cranes, which represent longevity in Japanese culture. And, of course, it traditionally comes in the colors red and white.
Note: This celebration takes place on the 15th of the month, which is the sum total of the numbers 7+5+3! Another auspicious reckoning by the hands of the Japanese!
Special Adult Birthdays
Of course, there are also traditions for adult birthday celebrations. This is how birthdays are normally celebrated by adults in Japan.
The 20th Birthday
はたち (hatachi｜二十歳), or the 20th birthday is probably the biggest Japanese birthday of all. It is the big coming-of-age benchmark that signifies one moving into adulthood.
Even by law, the underaged become grown-ups this year. At this age, since young adults can legally drink alcohol, they celebrate with alcohol and loud parties and such – think of it like turning 18 in America.
In January of the following year, all those who celebrated their 二十歳 participated in せいじんしき (seiji shiki｜成人式). During 成人式 the now adults wear flamboyant clothes and celebrate with Japanese friends and family.
Note: This is the only of the special Japanese birthdays that have no relation to the Chinese Zodiacal Cycle.
The 60th Birthday
Speaking of Chinese Zodiacal cycles, the 60th birthday, or かんれき (kanreki | 還暦) is significant in Japan since it represents the completion of 5 zodiacal cycles. In yin/yang cosmology, these five cycles are thought to symbolize the complete rebirth of the one celebrated.
Even the retirement age in Japan is just 60 years old – after retirement, one has the chance of “rebirth” to start a new life (if you will) and a new routine. This day is also known as the Red Birthday since red is thought to symbolize the color of the baby and therefore emphasizes the notion of rebirth.
The 77th Birthday
The 77th birthday or the きじゅ (kiju | 喜寿) is considered a lucky birthday in Japanese. When the archaic form of the characters is broken down, they represent good luck and fortune, hence, the origin of this celebration.
The 88th Birthday
8 is already a super special and fortunate number in both Japanese and Chinese cultures (from which it was adopted). So it’s no surprise that the 88th birthday or the べいじ (beiji | 米時) is considered to be wondrous.
This special day is also referred to as the Rice Birthday. If you look carefully at the kanji for rice (米), you’ll notice how it looks to be the combination of the kanji for 88 (八十八). It doesn’t look so much so when typed out, but it’s evidently clear in hand-written form. This is just one of the many interesting kanji characters that you can learn!
Due to this curious observation, the 88th birthday, or Rice Birthday, represents greater wealth and material fortune for the celebrated.
The 99th Birthday
Aside from the obvious reasons why one’s 99th birthday is a cool and special year, the Japanese have added another! The 99th birthday or the はくじゅ(hakuji | 白寿), is also referred to as the White Birthday in Japan, and here’s why:
The character for “one” in Japan is「一」. The character for “hundred” in Japan is 「百」. If we were to take one away from 100, we’d be left with 99. And so, if we were to take 一 away from (the top of) 百, we’d be left with 白. 白 or はく (haku) is the character for white, and thus, the 99th birthday became known as the White Birthday!
Note: For a White Birthday, most guests wear white clothing and bring gifts that represent longevity.
Other Important Birthday Vocabulary and Phrases in Japanese
Finally, here is a list of useful phrases you’ll likely need if you attend someone’s birthday celebration:
- なんさいですか(nan sai desu ka｜何歳ですか) How old are you?
- かんぱい！ (kanpai｜乾杯！) Cheers! — You’d say this after a toast (and usually drink alcohol right after)
- たんじょうびケーキ(tanjoubi keiki｜誕生日ケーキ｜) Birthday cake
- これはつまらないことが(kore ha tsumaranaimono desu ga) Here’s a gift for you — This translates as “Here is some insignificant thing but…”
- とんでもございません(tondemo gozaimasen) Nothing at all — You’d say this after someone thanks you for giving them a gift… “oh, that’s nothing at all”
- たのしんでください(tanoshinde kudasai｜楽しんでください) Please enjoy — In this case, “Please enjoy your birthday.”
Apart from birthday-related phrases, we also have plenty of useful phrases listed in this article on Japanese phrases.
Is There a “Happy Birthday” in Japanese song?
The short answer is no. While there is a Japanese happy birthday song, it’s just Japanese words over the traditional American song’s melody and rhythm. Maybe you can be the first to invent a completely authentic Japanese happy birthday song that reflects Japanese birthday culture!
And there you have it— you already learned different, fun ways and expressions for saying “happy birthday” in Japanese! So the next time you go to Japan, or when your Japanese friend’s special day approaches, choose the appropriate greetings from the formal and casual phrases for “happy birthday” that you learned from this article.
If you’d like to know more greetings that you can use daily, you can learn them from our blog post on Japanese greetings.
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