I know it’s such a cliche but this week I felt that time really does fly. Before I knew it, my baby was celebrating his first birthday. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I was huffing and puffing in that delivery room pushing my tiny little miracle out into this world. Of course, his 1st birthday was a very happy and special occasion for our little family.
For me, personally though, it was also very educational and entertaining because I got to experience aspects of the Japanese culture that I have never tried before. Though neither my husband nor I are very superstitious or traditional, we made it a point to observe Japanese customs on this event because we thought that it would be a nice experience for our son to have and something that we can all look back on fondly over the years. So here goes, our own cute little dumpling’s encounter with Japan’s first birthday traditions.
ISSHOU MOCHI (一升餅)
一升 (isshou) means 1 (one) shou which was a unit of measurement used a long, long time ago in Japan. It is equivalent to 1.8 kilograms so the first thing that we can gather about this tradition is that it involves 1.8 kilograms of mochi. Another thing that you should know (or perhaps already know) about Japanese people is that they are fond of wordplay involving homonyms and isshou, when written like 一生 in kanji, also means “one’s entire life” so this could also be interpreted as ‘a lifetime of mochi’.
HOW IT’S DONE
First, the birthday celebrant’s family is to secure said mochi. These days there are many variations to the amount (1 or 2) shapes (round or heart-shaped – cute design popular among parents of little girls) and designs of the mochi used. We got our Isshou Mochi set from Amazon and for 3,450JPY, it came with other goodies including 900 grams of rice.
This is another modern variation to the tradition where instead of having only mochi, you actually get 900 grams of rice and 900 grams of mochi – still totaling to one shou or 1.8 kilograms. This set also comes with heart-shaped stickers in celebratory, prosperous white and red colors. You can use these stickers to decorate the mochi. Traditionally, the 寿 (kotobuki) symbol is written to signify long life and prosperity. However, it has also become a trend to write the baby’s name instead. Since the packaging of the rice that we got we are set also came ready with a label for writing something, we decided to put 寿 (kotobuki) on the mochi and our baby’s name on the rice.
You then put this 1.8 kilos worth of load inside a bag. In olden times, they used a traditional cloth used to wrap bentos and such called 風呂敷 (furoshiki). These days, you could practically use any appropriately sized bag you got. Our Amazon set again came ready with a cloth to be used for this very purpose. Once the rice and mochi are safely inside, the bag goes straight on to baby’s back. Carrying this heavy load (for a one-year-old), the baby then has to walk a few steps. This is said to symbolize that the child will be blessed throughout his life with not only good health and abundance but with the Japanese notion of Enman (円満) which is a difficult word to translate encompassing concepts of perfection, harmony, peace and completeness.
After initially struggling to gain balance, our little firecracker was able to walk a couple of steps and he seemed to be very happy with himself. He eventually fell again, the poor thing (lol).
In some regions of Japan, it is even believed that babies who are able to walk and carry the isshou mochi without stumbling are destined the leave the nest early, So, well-meaning parents would deliberately nudge their munchkins in the hope that they would not ‘grow up too fast’ and spend more time with mom and dad. My husband and I decided that as long as he’s happy, we’re fine without either arrangement (lol) so we did not bother toppling him over.
This word means “choose and take”. The gist is pretty simple – the baby is presented with a set of things and whichever one picks (or technically, whichever one he touches first) symbolizes the kind of future that he/she has. Traditionally, this is done with actual household items. However, some of the common ‘options’ given are not so safe (ex.: scissors that mean the baby has skillful hands he could utilize in fields like fashion) or sanitary (money symbolizing that he will be rich). So, these days, parents have the option of purchasing erabitori cards which contain illustrations of the items and their symbolism.
Our son is already very quick with his hands and feet so I did not at all like the idea of him even just possibly touching those scissors for a second. Luckily, the isshou mochi set that we got from Amazon also includes a set of erabitori cards.
HOW IT’S DONE
You simply have to lay out the cards and bring baby’s attention to them until he eventually comes to pick one. Our baby walked to the cards but did not, at all, bother to touch any of them. My interpretation of it is that this is his initial act of rebellion. He was like “don’t you dare dictate my future like this”. My husband, on the other hand, says that most of the jobs on the cards would probably be obsolete by the time he’s a grown-up anyway so it just makes sense that he did not pick any (lol). What’s your take?
And that concluded my son’s first birthday. What did you think about these Japanese traditions? Do you believe in what they signify? Let me know in the comments!