Not long ago, we had a family celebration for the oldest of my wife’s relatives – her 88-year-old uncle. He wasn’t there, though, because longevity isn’t always a good thing and he survives more or less only as a physical specimen . He is a heartbreaking, dribbling shell of a man. Nevertheless, the 88th birthday is one of the big ones in Japan and the family felt a celebration was appropriate. It is called beiju in Japanese and seems to be celebrated because the kanji characters for 88 (八十八) can be superimposed onto each other to make the kanji character for rice (米). This character can have the pronunciation bei, and rice, apparently, is quite fortuitous. The 60th, 70th, 77th, 80th, 81st, 90th, 99th, 100th and every birthday thereafter are also seen as important events although not all families will celebrate all of them. For those that do celebrate, however, there are customs and traditions to adhere to. The principal one seems to be to dress the birthday fellow up in a ludicrous looking costume and photograph him for posterity’s sake. On the 60th birthday, or kanreki, this costume comprises a red tunic-like coat called a chanchanko and a matching oversized beret-style cap called a zukin. Garb duly donned and with a folding fan grasped in hand, the poor chap sits upon a red cushion and pretends he is enjoying the occasion. Subsequent special birthdays follow variations of this tradition, with the color of the chanchanko and zukin changing to purple for septuagenarians and a brownish-gold for those in their eighties. In the next decade they are white.
My wife’s parents and her father’s siblings went to visit her uncle, her dad’s eldest brother, in his care home and dressed him in the appropriate outfit. Then they laughed at him and took photos. Kanreki used to symbolize the cycle of life, with retirement bringing a return to childhood. Now that people live healthier and longer lives and there are plenty of sprightly 60-year-olds around, this is seen as a bit of an antiquated view, but it was a symbolization I could certainly recognize in the commemorative photographs taken for this 88th celebration. Smiling brothers and sisters stood behind a confused-looking man in a brightly coloured hat and tunic. He looked as unaware of what was happening as any slightly startled infant.
The family celebration was held in a small restaurant, where a private room and meal had been arranged in advance. My father-in-law is the youngest of nine siblings, six of whom survive. All nine, however, were represented by at least one member of his or her branch of the family and there were a total of 24 people present – all somehow related, even if nobody seemed exactly sure how. They were cousins or uncles, nephews or in-laws, and they ranged in age from my wife’s 84-year-old uncle to her 35-year-old sister.
We removed our shoes and stepped up onto the raised tatami floor of the private room. A long, low, wooden table ran down the centre of the room, with zabuton cushions placed down either side. Our names, written on small, paper, place-holders indicated where we were to sit; surnames included for all but my wife and me who had first names only. I scanned the table trying to remember which members of the family I had met before. My direct in-laws, of course, and a couple of my wife’s uncles I knew by sight and name. There was the gregarious aunt who, for reasons not yet explained, thinks my name is Bobby, and my wife’s downtrodden cousin who sacrificed his life as a teacher to look after his ailing father whose birthday we were now celebrating. For more than ten years he had been caring for his father as though he were a helpless child and it has only been in the last few months that he has admitted defeat and agreed to have his dad enter a home for the elderly. He has, it is fair to say, demonstrated an admirable patience and love, but his life has been consumed with a sense of obligation that has in turn almost completely drained him of any sense of joy.
The others at the table were new to me. Not all seemed familiar, either, to the 84-year-old uncle who was in charge of the kampai. He gave a small speech about his elder brother and then proceeded to introduce each member of the party individually, a decision he probably regretted somewhat as he reached the fifth or sixth face and said, ‘And this is…actually, I don’t know who this is. Who are you?’
The woman in question revealed her relationship to the table – the wife of a deceased husband who was the son of a long-deceased brother or something – and everybody did a bit of mental gymnastics before the host pretended he remembered and said, ‘Well, anyway, thank you for coming.’ He moved on to the next person and said, ‘Ah…’ before that guest saved his blushes by standing up and announcing with a bow his name and relationship status to the day’s celebrant-in-absentia.
Yet, despite the fact that many of the guests hadn’t seen each other for decades, if ever, a fine feast was enjoyed by all. Sashimi, tempura, soba, chawanmushi, and far too much beer, wine and sake than is appropriate for that time of day were guzzled and burped around the table. A family remembered they were a family. People reminisced and laughed and joked. Even the 88-year-old’s long-suffering son permitted himself a few rare smiles as somebody remembered an old tale about the happier days of our missing guest, the now muddled man gazing into space in a home for the elderly. A man who was almost gone, but not forgotten.