Feb
17
2010

Japanese words for age

You may already know that Japan has the world’s longest life expectancy. But did you know that Japanese are also the most well prepared for their longevity with a vast array of special words for different ages? Although many (umm, almost all?) of these words are not commonly used, they’re still fun to know. And you never know what’s going to come up on a Japanese game show or in your izakaya parties. Here’s the list!

The only one you absolutely must use

20 years old : 二十歳 (はたち)

In Japanese, you don’t say にじゅっさい, you say はたち.

Okay, if you’re just learning Japanese to communicate or for travel, you can stop here and you won’t be missing any vital information. The rest of these words are obscure at best and archaic at worst even for native Japanese (seriously, we’re talking post-JLPT-1級 level, here).

But if you’re like me and the thought of “archaic Japanese” gives you a jolt of excitement, or if you’re just curious, read on…

Words based on the calendar or life events

We’ll start with a collection of age words that are based on perceived or actual life events.

  • 10 : 辻髪 (つじかみ) – This is the name of a Japanese children’s hair style.
  • 15 : 笄年  (けいねん) – Girls only. 15 is the age when they could start using hairpins in their hair.
  • 20 : 丁年 (ていねん) – Men only. Under the Ritsuryo law system, this was the age when a man became subject to official assignments  (丁) (e.g. to X days of labor or taxes).
  • 40 : 初老 (しょろう) – This is when you start (初) becoming old (老). In English, we would say “over the hill.”
  • 50 : 中老 (ちゅうろう) – You’re in the middle (中) of becoming old.
  • 50 : 艾年 (がいねん) – The age when your hair begins to turn white like a mugwort plant (艾:よもぎ)
  • 60 : 丁年 (ていねん) -The word for the year a person entered the official assignments system was also used for the year when one left it.
  • 60: 還暦 (かんれき) - Literally meaning “revolving the calendar”, because the 10 calendar signs (十干/じっかん) and the 12 astrological signs (十二支/じゅうにし) realign every 60 years.
    • Note: 還暦 is 61 years old under the “counting age” system. (See Below)
  • 120 : 大還暦 (だいかんれき) – The “big calendar revolution”, this means you made it twice around the 60 year cycle. Congratulations!

One from a Chinese poem

  • 70 : 古希 (こき)

This age word is from a famous poem by Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Du Fu (Japanese: 杜甫/とほ). In Japanese translation, the relevant lines are:

酒債は尋常行く処に有り 人生七十古来稀なり

There is an English translation of this poem (曲江: Winding River) available, if you’re interested.

One for Shogi players

  • shogi japanese chess

    将棋 (しょうぎ) : a chess-like Japanese board game

    81 : 盤寿 (ばんじゅ) - Because the 9×9 Shogi board has 81 places.

Kanji play

When your language has thousands of highly complex characters, and you’re bored in the winter with nothing but a bottle of sake, word games are just a natural occurrence. Hundreds of years of Japanese ingenuity brings us these linguistic gems:

  • 48 : 桑年 (そうねん) – The old form for 桑 is 桒, which can be broken down as four 十 characters and one 八 character, adding up to 48.
  • 61 : 華寿 (かじゅ) – Because 華 can be seen as 6 十 characters and a 一.
  • 66 : 緑寿 (ろくじゅ) – Because 緑 can be read as ろく, the same as 六 (6).
  • 77 : 喜寿 (きじゅ) – The grass script form for 喜 is 㐂, which is actually 3 sevens, but if you pretend one of them is a 10 it becomes 七十七 = 77.
  • 80 : 傘寿 (さんじゅ) – The abbreviated form of 傘 is 仐, which is 八十= 80.
  • 81 : 半寿 (はんじゅ) – Because 半 can be broken down as 八 + 十 + 一 = 八十一 = 81.
  • 88 : 米寿 (べいじゅ) – Because the kanji can be broken down as 八+十+八 = 八十八 = 88.
  • 90 : 卒寿 (そつじゅ) – Because the abbreviated form of 卒 is 卆, which is 九+十 = 九十 = 90.
  • 95 : 珍寿 (ちんじゅ) – Because the left side of the kanji can be 十二 and the right 八三 (83 + 12 = 95)
  • 99 : 白寿 (はくじゅ) – Because if you take one (一) away from the kanji for 100 (百), it becomes 白
  • 100 : 百寿 (ももじゅ) – This one’s obvious… (百 = 100)
  • 108 : 茶寿 (ちゃじゅ) – Because the kanji can be broken down as 十十 (20) plus 八十八 (88)
  • 111 : 皇寿 (こうじゅ) – Because 白 is understood to be 99 (detailed above), and 王 is 一+十+一 = 12. 99 + 12 = 111
  • 111 : 川寿 (せんじゅ) – Because 川 looks like 111.
  • 119 : 頑寿 (がんじゅ) - Because 二 + 八 (元) = 10 and 百 + 一 + 八 = 109. 109 + 10 = 119.
  • 120 : 昔寿 (せきじゅ) – Because 廿 (= 十十 = 20) + 百 (100) = 120.

And just to make sure that we never, ever run out of words…

  • 1001 : 王寿 (おうじゅ) – Because 王 can be broken down as 千 + 一.
  • 1007 : 毛寿 (もうじゅ) – Because 毛 can be broken down as 千 + 七.
  • 1082 : 科寿 (かじゅ) – Because 科 can be broken down as 千 +八 + 十 + 二

These words (that include 寿), are collectively known as 賀寿 (がじゅ).

Chouju

In Japanese, longevity (長寿/ちょうじゅ) is broken down into 3 stages, but there’s differences of opinion over which specific ages they indicate, so you might want to think of these words just as general estimates.

  • 下寿 (かじゅ) : 60… or 80
  • 中寿 (ちゅうじゅ) : 80… or 100
  • 上寿 (じょうじゅ) : 100 or higher

Haka: a word with two ages?

破瓜 (はか) is another kanji/wordplay term for age, but is unusual because it means a different age when referring to different genders. The kanji 破 means to split or tear something, and apparently 瓜 (the kanji) can be split into two 八 八 characters (personally, I don’t see it). Hence:

  • 瓜 = 八 + 八 = 16 (women)
  • 瓜 = 八 x 八 = 64 (men)

Soji

Japan also has a whole class of words ending in 十路 (そじ) to count age in tens.  In really old Japanese, (until about the Heian period) these words were also also used in counting regular objects.

  • 20 : 二十路 (ふたそじ)
  • 30 : 三十路 (みそじ)
  • 40 : 四十路 (よそじ)
  • 50 : 五十路 (いそじ)
  • 60 : 六十路 (むそじ)
  • 70 : 七十路 (ななそじ)
  • 80 : 八十路 (やそじ)
  • 90 : 九十路 (ここのそじ)

Confucius says

The Confucian text The Classic of Rites also specifies a collection of words for specific ages. Sorry ladies, you’re only allowed to use the ones from 50 on.

  • 10 : 幼学 (ようがく)
  • 20 : 弱冠 (じゃっかん)
  • 30 : 年壮 (ねんそう)
  • 30 : 壮室 (そうしつ) (if you have a wife)
  • 40 : 強仕 (きょうし)
  • 50 : 杖家 (じょうか)
  • 60 : 杖卿 (じょうきょう)
  • 70 : 杖国 (じょうこく)
  • 80 : 杖朝 (じょうちょう)
  • 81 : 漆寿 (しつじゅ)

The stages of life

You may have heard the words 少年 (しょうねん) or 青年 (せいねん) before, but did you know that these words point to different, generally understood stages of life? Exactly what ages these words refer to is not set in stone, but some documents from the Japanese Ministry of Health use the following groups:

  • 0 to 4 : 幼年期
  • 5 to 14 : 少年期
  • 15 to 24 : 青年期
  • 25 to 44 : 壮年期
  • 45 to 64 : 中年期
  • 65 onward : 高年期

Note about 壮年 (そうねん): 壮 here means to prosper or be active. 壮年 can refer either to age 30 specifically, or to all of a person’s active and productive years (generally starting at age 30).

Confucian age words

More? Yes, Japan also offers another selection of age words based one passage from the Confucian analects, in which he writes:

At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.

Source: Electronic Library: The Analects of Confucius (look for passage 2:4)

  • 15 : 志学 (しがく)
  • 30 : 而立 (じりつ)
  • 40 : 不惑 (ふわく)
  • 50 : 知命 (ちめい)
  • 60 : 耳順 (じじゅん)
  • 70 : 従心 (じゅうしん)

Note: these words are only for men.

Counting age the Asian way

The traditional way to count your age in East Asian countries is to start at one, not zero like we do in the west, and to increment by one at the end of every calendar year instead of on the individual’s birthday. The system is known in Japanese as 数え年 (かぞえどし) but Japan and most other Asian countries nowadays have very thoroughly adopted the western counting method (満年齢・:まんねんれい), with the exception of Korea where the old counting method is still the de facto system.

One relic of the old counting system in Japan is the Coming of Age celebration, where boys and girls who turned 20 during the previous year all get to celebrate their passage into adulthood. Read the wikipedia article on Asian age counting if you’re interested.

Two kanji for “sai”

While we’re talking about age, I figured it would be good to include a short word about 歳 and 才. Both of these characters are read さい, both mean age. What’s the difference? 才 was originally an abbreviated form of 歳, so you can think of it as less “official” than 歳. People often use 才 because it’s easier to read and write, but on government documents and official application forms, you will always see 歳 used.

Interestingly, if you’re talking about the age of an animal, you should write 才. Using 歳 with an animal apparently makes the animal seem more human, so depending on your point of view, you could use it with monkeys and such.

Credit where credit is due

Here I’ve compiled a list of the links I referred to when I was locating and organizing all this information. Although I’m sure you’ll never need to know any more than I’ve covered here, there are a couple alternate forms and other super-obscure words out there (particularly on the Wikipedia page) if you’re for some reason totally crazy about this topic.

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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