In accordance with the Chinese zodiac, we call every twelfth year after birth a person’s eto year. And in Okinawa, on the first day of a new eto year—for example, the first Day of the Monkey in the Year of the Monkey—we hold a celebration called a Tushibī.
The year children turn thirteen by the old reckoning (twelve by contemporary standards), they, especially girls, are given a lavish Birth Year Celebration—a Seinen celebration. The first time I heard this word, I thought they were saying seinen (青年)—adulthood—instead of seinen (生年)—birth year— and I thought this must be the Okinawan term for a coming-of-age ceremony.
Okinawa has no Shichi-go-san1 celebration for a child’s third, fifth, or seventh birthdays, so the Seinen celebration is the first time a family commemorates a child’s growth. When I asked my friends about this ceremony, they spoke nostalgically about a day of nothing but wonderful things—wearing new clothes, gathering relatives, eating a veritable feast, and receiving celebratory gift money. These days, you’ll also find huge advertisements only in Okinawan newspapers: “Commemorate your Seinen Celebration at ____ Photography Studio!”
The tushibī comes around every twelve years, though, and for both men and women an even more lavish celebration is given for their Kajimayā when they turn ninety-seven (again by the old reckoning.)
Kajimayā is the Okinawan term for a windmill, and for this celebration, the elderly wear flashy kimono, wave pinwheels, and parade through town in top-down convertibles. The next tushibī would theoretically come at age 109, but even in long-lived Okinawa2, not many stay in the mortal world that long, so we don’t celebrate it.
One explanation holds that the term tushibī comes from the word toshi imi (年忌み)—an unlucky year. In the past, tushibī were dangerous rather than celebratory. During an unlucky year, people were not supposed to do things like build houses or travel. On the mainland, forty-two is an unlucky age for men, while thirty-three is an unlucky age for women, but in Okinawa, we don’t have unlucky ages. Just spend your unlucky year in Okinawa, and you’ll be safe!
- A traditional Japanese rite of passage for three- and seven-year-old girls, and five-year-old boys, to celebrate the growth and well-being of young children.
- Okinawa used to be the prefecture with the highest longevity in Japan, but after falling to 26th place for men in the 2000 census, the 2008 prefecture-by-prefecture life table shows that men are 43rd rank and women dropped to 16th place.