Our Lives | WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Hitting 60 in Japan offers a chance to start over, so don't waste time looking back

by Thomas Dillon

I am born again. Sort of.

And in a very Japanese way. For a few months ago I hit the big 6-0.

In Japan that’s called kanreki, which is a special age for all Japanese, a people known for arranging everything into a proper place, while in the West, we generalize:

The dirty 30s, the flashy 40s, the nifty 50s, followed by . . .

The sexy 60s?

Bald spot, nose hair, more wrinkles than a mole rat. Yes, this is when sexy begins.

“Shut up,” says my wife. “And don’t make fun of my Japanese traditions.”

Ah, and guess who else just hit kanreki?

Which, by Japanese custom, is the beginning of one’s second childhood. If one measures life in a 60-year cycle — and if you use the Chinese zodiac calendar, you do — then age 60 marks a new beginning or birth: You can be a child once again.

“In your case,” she says, “I wish you’d grow up.”

Now, being a kid is cool, but being a kanreki kid may be cooler, mostly because of the costume. On the big day, you get to wear this funky red vest and this funkier red hat.

The vest has peaked shoulders, like those of a feudal lord in ancient Japan, and the hat is like a chef’s hat, only flatter and floppier and, of course, redder.

You put this on and you sit on this cushion. It’s red. With the total effect being a cross between a samurai and an Italian Renaissance artist.

One that’s fixated on red. And perhaps with his or her hat pressed on too tight.

The entire get-up is to supposed to rekindle one’s youth and make one a kid again — although no real kid would ever be caught dead in such an outfit.

“These days,” I explain, “a real kid would dress up like a vampire or a ninja or a tiger — something practical.”

My wife explains back that red is the color of youth in Japan, with the literal meaning of the Japanese word for baby being “little red one.”

“Maybe that’s why they cry so much. They don’t like the name.”

While she would never ignore a child, she does ignore her husband.

“Red is also the color of celebration,” she says. “It has dual meaning.”

I remind her that red is also the color of embarrassment, which is why I chose to forego my kanreki garb.

Funky or not, I can handle only so much red, and I have no need to attract more attention than I already receive. As the local foreigner, I represent the outside world to my neighbors, most of whom think that that world could use a straitjacket. I don’t want to confirm their view.

My wife opted to pass when it came to her kanreki costume as well, for traditions die easy in the digital age. Rather than see her don the vest and hat, friends and family just sent her email of a cat doing the same.

“I could never look as cute at that cat, so why even try?” she says.

In traditional Japan, kanreki also signified a changing of the guard. Fathers stepped aside and let the first son run the family business. Mothers passed the rice paddle — baton-like — to their daughters-in-law.

The trouble is that — with the graying of Japan and the fading away of the nuclear family — the old guard is staying on duty a lot longer. Most people work well past 60, and youth do not marry so early, or not at all.

The result is a melting away of the kanreki tradition. The red hat and vest may soon be going the same way as the ice caps.

My wife and I are poster kids for this. We will no doubt be working till our double kanreki at 120. At which point, both of our boys will probably still be saying, “Nah, I’m too young to marry.”

By tradition, kanreki is also a time to reflect. The celebrant looks back on his/her five trips through the zodiac, weighs achievements against missteps, and then plots a fresh course for a new beginning.

The traditional questions are: What to build on? What to leave behind?

My problem? I can’t determine whether my encounters with the Japanese language and lifestyle have been achievements or missteps.

Maybe that’s how it is with most international kanrekis: We are walking optical illusions. Close one eye and we are high-stepping marvels. Close the other and we are toe-stubbing bunglers. So which eye do I use?

“Looking back is overrated,” says my wife. “All it earns us is a red vest and hat. It’s better to look ahead.”

And our next key birthday — according to the same zodiac calendar — lies only 10 years off. That’s koki, a word meaning “rare.”

In the old days it was rare if you made it; these days it’s rare if you don’t.

But the important thing is that the koki clothes are purple.

That’s a good color to live for. I’ve penned enough purple prose to know.

When East Marries West appears in print on the third Thursday Community page of the month. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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