Language | BILINGUAL

Japanese packed with phrases for the ages

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Some years ago, while watching one of the gossipy daytime TV “wide shows,” I happened to see a feature concerning a certain Ms. K, a tall and vivacious TV program moderator. Single and at that time アラサー (arasā, around age 30), she had been spotted entering a high-class hotel in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, where she apparently spent the night in a romantic tryst with, well, somebody. Probably acting on a tip, a paparazzo was waiting the next morning when she disembarked from the elevator and he snapped a “gotcha” picture. He then asked her for a comment.

Pointing a finger to her nose, she replied in the style of extreme politeness intended to be rude — called 慇懃無礼 (inginburei): わたくし が幾つだとお思いになります?(Watakushi ga ikutsu dato o-omoi ni narimasu? “How old do you think I am?”). The implication being ガキじゃないんだぞ (gaki ja nai-n-da zo, “Hey, I’m no spring chicken”) and am entitled to spend the night with whomever I choose.

The Japanese language certainly has no shortage of age-related terms, and the subject can pop up in almost any context. Aside from the polite お年はお幾つですか? (O-toshi wa o-ikutsu desu ka, “How old are you?”), many’s the time when someone at a bank or government office requests, ここに生年月日を書いてください (Koko ni seinengappi o kaite kudasai, “Please write in your ‘born-year-month-day'” (i.e., your date of birth)).

Except at the airport and 入国管理事務所 (nyūkoku kanri jimusho, immigration office), forms in Japan typically require entry according to the 年号 (nengō, the year of an emperor’s reign) as opposed to the year in 西暦 (seireki, Western calendar), usually by inviting the writer to circle 明, 大, 昭 or 平, the first characters in 明治 (Meiji, 1868-1912), 大正 (Taisho, 1912-1926), 昭和 (Showa, 1926-1989) and 平成 (Heisei, 1989-present).

Now let’s take a look at the kanji for old, 老 (, or the verb oiru, to grow old), which in its ancient form was composed of three not-very-flattering parts. The upper 土 signified an elderly person’s hair, which tended to grow long and unkempt. The lower ヒ depicted an elder’s stooped posture. And the diagonalノ stroke that separates the two represented a cane or stick to assist walking.

The character 老 appears in 海老 (ebi, a shrimp or prawn, literally “ocean old”), probably to describe a shrimp’s curved body and elongated “whiskers.”

On the third Monday of September (the 18th of this month) Japan observes a national holiday called 敬老の日 (Keirō no hi, Respect for the Aged Day). While elderly people can politely be referred to as お年寄り(o-toshiyori, the elderly), foreign borrowings such as シニア (shinia, senior) and シルバー (shirubā, silver) have come into widespread use.

It’s politically incorrect to refer to someone as a 老人 (rōjin, old person), but it’s still safe to use in such words as 老化 (rōka, aging), 老婆心 (rōbashin, grandmotherly feelings, i.e., meddlesomeness) and 老眼鏡 (rōgankyō, reading glasses). Some people may also recognize 老頑童 (rōgandō, an impish old man), the nickname of the character Zhou Botong (周伯通) created by Hong Kong novelist Louis Cha.

Considerably less flattering terms incorporating include 老害 (rōgai, the disabilities of old age), also used to complain of gerontocracy, when elders exert excessive control over the young.

One of the more colorful age-related expressions used to be クリスマスケーキ(kurisumasu kēki, Christmas cake), referring to a woman who has turned 26 and had yet to snare a husband — because the confection so named is considered unmarketable after Dec. 25. With the current trend toward 晩婚化 (bankon-ka, marrying at a later age), the term is no longer in vogue.

As a general rule, I try to keep my eyes peeled for new and unfamiliar terms. For instance, a headline in the Shukan Asahi magazine of Aug. 4 used a neologism I hadn’t seen before: アラ還女性 (arakan josei), a spin-off from the aforementioned アラサー and アラフォー (arafō, around age 40), to refer to women who are approaching or reaching age 60.

The kan is a reference to 還暦 (kanreki, age 60), celebrated when having completed the Asian Zodiac’s 60-year sexagenary cycle of “heavenly stems” (elements) and “earthly branches” (animals) adopted from China. This year, for instance, is 丁酉 (hinototori, Year of the Fire Rooster), so people born in 1957 are feting their kanreki, and those born this year will observe their kanreki in 2077.

Just as people in the West observe a silver anniversary or diamond jubilee, Japanese have other special terms for certain ages. For instance, 古希 (koki, age 70) is written with characters meaning “old hope.” I suppose the hope in this case is to make it to the next stage, 喜寿(kiju, happy longevity, age 77). Then comes 傘寿(sanju — umbrella longevity, age 80). An easy one to remember is age 88, called 米寿 (beiju, rice longevity). If you look at the kanji for rice 米(bei or kome), you can see it is composed of two 八 (hachi, 8), with the one on top written upside down, and 十 (, 10), making 八十八 (hachijū-hachi, 88).

I’m uncertain at which age a person will feel flattered to be told 若く見えますね (Wakaku miemasu ne, “You look young”), but as the saying goes, 年齢は気持ち次第 (Nenrei wa kimochi shidai, “You’re only as old as you feel”). As it so happens, this year I will become 古希. The term dates back some 13 centuries to 杜甫 (Du Fu or To Ho), a famous poet of China’s Tang Dynasty, who wrote, “In the lifetime of man, to reach seventy is a rarity.” How times have changed — I am just hitting my stride!

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