Wednesday, September 18, 2013

60 And Sitting Pretty: The 'Kanreki' Rebirth

Kitty in vestments. Via.

It’s been said that old age is a kind of second childhood. How about a second spring? Japanese tradition celebrates both of these ideas in the form of a kanreki, or sixtieth birthday.

The kanreki tradition stretches back to Japan’s adoption of the Chinese zodiac calendar and includes its own particular vestments for the occasion. Those lucky enough to reach 60 receive the traditional red cap, chanchanko vest, and seat cushion that mark them as having completed a full cycle of the twelve-pronged zodiac calendar. Achievements are celebrated and a lifetime’s troubles are forgotten as the celebrated individual enters a new stage of life with all the joy and possibilities of a newborn.

The red coloring of the vest and cap (available for humans and felines alike) is intended to promote a spirit of youth (the Japanese word for baby, akachan, is composed of aka, meaning “red,” and -chan, a suffix often used for children). Furthermore, many visitors to Japan can attest to the ubiquitous presence of the red-bibbed ojizosama statues, which are thought to protect the spirits of children.

In the past, reaching kanreki would have signified a person’s transition from a lifetime of gainful employment to comfortable dependence on the eldest son. In the Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, Mary L. Dol describes the tradition:
The 60 year old man “retired” from active work and from the responsibilities of household representation and management. His successor, typically the oldest son, assumed control of the family enterprise and took care of his parents in their old age. The retiree’s wife… passed the rice paddle to her son’s wife to symbolize the transfer of responsibility for the internal management of household affairs.
In reality, many men and women continued to provide some degree of labor in the form of caring for children or carrying out household chores. Even today, a quick drive through the countryside of Japan and many other Asian nations will reveal a large number of spritely, aged individuals looking after gardens and crops.

Though some might think 60 years to be no more than middle aged in a country that boasts the world’s longest life expectancy, it’s important to remember that anything beyond 40 would have been considered long-lived a century ago. We can see this reality in the old Japanese concept of yakudoshi, or "calamitous ages," the most significant of which occurred at the age of 33 for women and 42 for men. The age of 60, on the other hand, was a positive yakudoshi signaling a return to the beginning of the zodiac calendar, and the other yakudoshi of age 70, 77, 87 and 99 would have involved some sort of celebration. One can only wonder how many Japanese men and women have gone on to reach the Dai Kanreki, a sort of kanreki-plus known in Buddhism as the Greater Kanreki.

Tonight Japan Society's Performing Arts Program launches its kanreki season featuring a spate of international cross-cultural collaborations, encompassing beloved encore performances, world and U.S. premieres, legendary performers and emerging artists. With the Program going strong after 60 years and over 600 productions, it looks like the Greater Kanreki is still very much within reach. Whether the caps and chanchanko vests will make an appearance remains to be seen.

-- Andres Oliver (additional research by Matt Jefferis)

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