Issho Mochi & Erabitori – The First Year of Life Ceremonies and Birthday
Japan is a country where ceremonies are a traditional and essential part of life from the moment of their birth until the day of their last breath. Beginning with the pregnancy period and birth, the life of a Japanese citizen becomes a succession of ceremonies, festivals and traditions to follow.
A country of traditions, Japan is a one-of-a-kind for all kinds of its traditional elements, especially for the first years of life of the new born children. During the first year of life and continuing during the entire childhood period, Japanese culture has a lot of different ceremonies and traditions representing and fortifying the spirit of happy and healthy children. Japan has special days for both Girls' Day (雛祭り, March 3rd) and Children's Day (子供の日, May 5th, it was once called Boy's Day), as well as the age ceremony Shichi-Go-San (七五三, November 15th) for girls of 3 and 7 years old, and boys of 3 and 5 years old, along with school celebrations, up until Coming of Age Day (Seijin-no-hi) when they turn 20.
Prayers for growth, well-being, happiness and strength are the objectives of all of these celebrations for young children. Among all of them, however, there is a peculiar one that is not that well-known outside Japanese islands, maybe for its intimate and familiar character, but with no doubt, its as original and inspiring as all the ones stated above: the Issho Mochi celebration or the first birthday celebration.
As also happens in some other neighboring Asian countries such as Korea, in Japan the birthday celebration tradition did have more to do with the arrival of the new year rather than its natural or "real" birthday date. This traditional old way of determining the age of a person by starting with one year of age by the time of its birthday is known as “Kazoe-doshi” (数え歳) and its used even now for certain traditional ceremonies such as purification for unlucky ages (Yakubarai, 厄払い) or the January on Coming-of-Age Day (Seijin-no-hi, 成人の日). According to this tradition, and until around the end of the Second World War, the generalized, widespread and common Japanese custom was to celebrate the birthday on New Year's Eve (ômisoka, 大晦日). According to this tradition, this counting includes a part of celebrating the birthday as "growing one year older" at New Year's Eve, eating traditional Japanese mochi and other special New Year's dishes like year-crossing noodles (toshikoshi soba, 年越し蕎麦). This means that on that date, all Japanese used to consider themselves as having all aged one year.
By having everyone's birthday on New Year's Eve, some strange situations might occur, specially for babies and their age counting. For example, considering that babies were traditionally thought to already be one year old at the time of their birth, a baby born three days before New Year would also be considered to be 2 years old at New Year, despite the fact of being only 3 days since its birth. This might be confusing for Westerners and other foreigners, accustomed to star counting a person's age from 0 years old.
Nowadays, however, most Japanese people celebrate the birthday on the month and day they were born. On that day, moreover, there was a recognized tradition in Japanese culture. Probably related to past times when infant mortality was high and a child surviving the first year of life was something to celebrate and outstandingly special, appeared the First Birthday tradition (hatsu tanjo, 初誕生 or issho mochi, 一升餅).
According to this tradition, on her or his first birthday (hatsu tanjo, 初誕生) the baby has to carry a special red-white mochi known as "tanjô mochi" (誕生餅) or "Issho mochi" (一升餅). In feudal Japan, "issho" (一升) was a common liquid measure that currently is still used for measuring certain things such as Japanese alcohol or sake. That corresponds to about 1,800cc or, in the case of rice cake, 1.8 kilograms. The rice cake is placed in a traditional wrapping cloth (furoshiki, 風呂敷) and the child's name is written on it in red on his or her back or shoulder. Then the baby has to walk a few steps with the rice cake tied onto their back. This is a huge weight, considering a 1-year-old baby is carrying it.
The name of the rice cake "issho" is symbolic itself because it is a homonym. On the one hand, literally means "1 shô", the former volume metric explained above. On the other hand, written with different calligraphy or Japanese characters, it can also mean "a whole life time" (issho, 一生). This alternative reading is important for the ceremony, symbolizing the celebration of happy life and longevity.
The ritual is prepared by the parents of the baby with the best wishes and hopes for their child. By carrying out it, the child is thought to be blessed not only with food and goods, but also the Japanese concept of "enman" (円満). "Enman" is a very positive word that encompasses the concepts of perfection, harmony, peace, smoothness, completeness, satisfaction and integrity. These are qualities and characteristics wished by the parents to be in the life of the baby, invoked through this ceremony. In a certain way, the ceremony is a prayer for good health and prosperity for the "entire life" of the child.
Also, the discomfort brought on by the sudden yoking of the child to the mochi and its weight, it is also said to signify an introduction to the future challenges which lay in store for the child as it grows older. After having walked a few steps or stood for a second or two, when the child falls down backside it is thought that the impurities of the child are washed away. Once again, Japanese provides a play on words, because in Japanese ridding oneself of impurities is called "yaku otoshi" (厄落とし) and this otoshi (落とし) also means to drop or fall.
Another additional symbolism to the ceremony is the desire of the parents that their children will not grow up too fast or soon. In ancient Japan, it was commonly thought that children who could walk before their first birthday had some evilness and were called demon children (oni ko, 鬼子). This kind of children were feared and avoided, so parents would discourage their children from walking on their own until the first birthday ceremony.
This first tradition has different names and characteristic details depending on the region of Japan. In Kyushu, for example, it is known as "mochi stepping" (mochi fumi, 餅踏み) and the baby steps on the mochi with baby-sized rice straw sandals (waraji, 草鞋).
After this first part of the ceremony, the future occupation or way of life of the child is divined by another ritual. This ceremony is known as "Pick and keep an item" (erabitori, 選び取り). A few different objects, with specific symbolism, are exposed on the floor in front of the baby. It is said that the one picked out first by the baby shows his or her calling, a tendency on his or her future. Traditionally, the elements for boys were an abacus, a writing brush, and a scythe. As for the girls a book and a pin case. Nowadays, however, most of Japanese parents have fun presenting several objects checking which one is picked by their baby. The most common objects, and also preserving the symbolism, are: an abacus, a writing brush or pen, scissors, chopsticks, a book or dictionary, money, a measuring ruler and a ball or shoes.
Indeed, Japanese society is well-known for its busy lifestyle. These traditions are an interesting view of the way Japanese people are introduced to the weight of responsibility and decision-making from a truly early age. But also, a peculiar way to face and see life as a constant challenge that demands the best of ourselves, and all of our strength!