In Japan a person’s age is determined two ways: firstly, in the usual way, by number of years; secondly, in relative terms, in relation to older or younger siblings and peers. In the family, from kindergarten through to university, then at work and any clubs or other organsations joined, a person is always junior or senior to others, sempai and kohai. In the family this positioning is by age, but elsewhere it can be by age or related to timing of joining.
In all cases the older sibling, the earlier joiner, and the more senior person is treated as being in a superior position, so that no matter how successful in business or elevated in society a person might become, that person will always act in the respectful manner expected towards a sempai. For example, if the Japanese prime minister met a former teacher, he would show the teacher the same respect as if the former student were a lowly office worker.
With years of age, some years have traditionally been considered lucky, namely 60, 70, 77 and 88, and some others (yakudoshi) unlucky, namely 19 and 33 for women, and 25 and 42 for men. Especially the age of 60 is a significant milestone, and celebrated as such.
For some decades life for the Japanese has passed through a number of clearly distinct stages, with the expectation that everyone would act and do things according to what was the norm for that phase and age group. These stages can be identified as follows:
- infancy, commencing from when the mother publicly announces her pregnancy by wearing maternity smocks, to when children commence kindergarten aged three.
- childhood, considered to begin at age six, when elementary school begins, but many children start additional classes after they enter kindergarten, such as playing a musical instrument, swimming or learning English, so in practical terms this is the beginning of their childhood.
- youth, considered to extend through the three years of junior high school, the further three of high school, and the two to four (sometimes more) years of university, or some other form of tertiary education.
- adulthood, legally commencing at twenty in Japan, when people can drive, drink alcohol and vote, although the old view, that adulthood doesn’t really start until working life or married life commences, is still held by some traditionalists.
- young working women, those who have taken the most common route of employment after graduation to a lowly administrative position in a company, being referred to as an office lady (OL).
- young working men, those who have taken the most common route of employment after graduation to a life-long career in a company, being referred to as a salary-man (sarariman).
- men and women of marriageable age, in the mid-twenties to early thirties bracket.
- housewives and working men, aged from early/mid-thirties.
- middle-aged men and women, aged from early/mid-forties, when children (if any) are at school, the man is gradually progressing up the corporate ladder, and the woman may have returned to work, in a relatively lowly semi-skilled position, or a semi-professional position, such as kindergarten teacher. A smaller but growing portion of these women are also moving into internet-based companies as well as family-owned and operated businesses.
- seniors, from mid-fifties upwards.
The reality now is that whilst each of these categories still exists, within all of them from mid-teens onwards more and more people are doing things differently. The biggest lifestyle changes are occurring in the age groups from high school to mid-thirties, as outlined below, with changing employment practices and delay of marriage, the latter for increasing numbers permanently. For those women who do marry, increasing numbers are remaining childless, causing the birthrate to fall to 1.2 children per woman, well below the level required to maintain the current population level.
This tendency is adding further to the ageing of the population, although on the positive side this is leading to more employment opportunities for middle-aged women, who are returning to work in greater numbers than ever.
The second most significant lifestyle changes are occurring among the increasingly large number of elderly citizens. In the past they were the least likely to do anything out of character for people their age, which meant some part-time work, pursuing a hobby and spending time with grandchildren.
With longevity and often good health to accompany it, many elderly are breaking out of this mould, overseas travel becoming more and more popular, along with numerous other activities. Divorce also is becoming more common, usually instigated by the wife.
Thus, through a number of life’s stages there is now an increasing blurring of the lines between what has for decades been considered normal activity within any age group, and what members of those groups are actually now doing, with more student drop-outs, more university graduates opting for ongoing part-time employment, more middle-aged company employees changing jobs or opting for early retirement then having a go at self-employment, and more overseas travel by the elderly, married couples or in groups (often women only).
Yet for the still vast majority who do marry, and perhaps parent one or two children, life follows the usual path: for women of child-rearing, for men of work, career consolidation in the company joined upon university graduation, and paying off a housing loan. Middle-age, for about twenty years from around the age of forty, has also little changed over the decades for these family men and women, except now with a greater likelihood the wife will return to some form of employment. For couples who remain together, what they might look forward to is an overseas trip contemplated since their only previous one, a very brief honeymoon, and hopefully a grandchild or two.
When they finally pass away, as the anniversary of a person’s death is subsequently celebrated at specific intervals for up to 50 years, starting with receipt of a Buddhist posthumous name, death in Japan is not such a clearly defined end.