Respect for the Aged Day, Japan: Paying homage to the wise

The world has a lot to learn from the way the Japanese culture honours and celebrates its rapidly greying society. In Japan, almost every day is a Respect for the Aged Day. In their own small ways, people show their appreciation to the elderly for their wisdom, knowledge and experience. Come September each year, all Japanese—young and old, look forward to keirō no hi, a national holiday that is especially dedicated to the elderly; a day to express respect and gratitude for their contributions to society and celebrate their longevity.

Celebrated on the third Monday of September each year, Respect for the Aged Day is a very thoughtful and reasonable celebration, considering the longevity of the Japanese as well as the low birth rate in the country. More than 21 per cent of the population is over 65 years and there are more than 50,000 centenarians today.

The story of how it all began

In 1947, Mayor Masaokadowaki from a small town called Yachigocho Village, which was then called Nomatanimura, declared September 15 as Old Folk’s Day or Toshiyori No Hi. This holiday was well-known around the area and it soon became popular throughout the country. In 1966, the government recognized it as a national holiday and gave it its present name. In 2003, it was declared that the Respect for the Aged Day would be observed on the third Monday of every September, to be in line with the “Happy Monday” or Happi Mande Seido system, where many national holidays are moved to Mondays to create a three-day weekend for people who work five days a week.

Red is rooted in life and all its celebrations in Japan

In Japan, the colour red spells joy and good fortune. Red is colour of the rising sun.

Respect for the Aged Day is a “red day” in Japan for more than one reason; the simplest being that the Japanese traditionally call national holidays as “red days” since they are printed in red colour on Japanese calendars. 

Traditionally, Japanese begin to celebrate longevity at 60, which was the age when men would retire from work because the 60th year, called Kanareki indicated ones complete journey through the five cycles of the Sino-Japanese zodiac, jikkan-junishi, and to be born again as a baby. Since babies are called aka-chan or “red one,” it was customary for men to wear red when they turned 60. In Japan, the colour red symbolises the rising sun and warmth and is also believed to possess protective powers. The birthday boy is presented with a red coat, chanchanko, a cap, zukin and a red fan and is seated on a red cushion called zabuton, all of which represents a return to childhood. This may not be appropriate in today’s Japan, since people still work in their sixties and may look and feel absurd in a chanchanko and a zukin. So, when it comes to picking the perfect gift, a red tie or a sweater will be appropriate. In recent days, people are of the opinion that a 60-year-old is too young to be considered elderly.

The relevance of celebrating Respect for the Aged Day, today

On Respect for the Aged Day, the younger generation visit their elderly relatives with gifts that express their love and appreciation and organise various activities like golfing or shopping with them. The traffic on the streets is heavier than usual and the trains are crowded with people on the way to meet their elderly relatives and friends.

The Tokyo metropolitan government addresses the social welfare issues that concern senior citizens on this day and conducts ceremonies to honour them as well as sponsor local events. The governor of Tokyo calls upon centenarians with commemorative gifts. Welfare groups, companies and schools organise events to thank the elderly for their contribution to society.

Various neighbourhoods hold keirokai ceremonies where local children conduct musical and stage performances for the community’s senior citizens. Special lunches, tea and sweets and savouries are served to the nation’s greying citizens, and to others who are not able to attend these function, o-bento boxes (boxed lunches) are delivered to them by volunteers. Mementoes and food gifts like red and white hued rice cakes are presented to them.

Young school children are encouraged to create art and craft gifts for the elderly people in their life. They visit residents in nursing homes or old age homes with handmade presents to brighten their day.

On this day, Japanese media spotlights on the achievements of noteworthy senior citizens who have been have-a-go heroes, sports persons or artists. Televisions cover stories and reports on Japans population and feature the nation’s centenarians and oldest citizens.

As the country’s citizens get older, the Respect for the Aged Day will continue to remain a special day for all the citizens, as they take time to realise, respect and celebrate the natural phenomenon of ageing.

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