Just like in any culture, birthdays are a big deal in Japanese life. If the family can afford it, lavish preparations are usually made to honor the person who's turning one year older. If you're going to visit Japan or are going to stay in the country for an extended period, you may want to learn the typical phrases that the Japanese use to wish people a happy birthday.
- Being Extra Polite
The Japanese put an emphasis on being courteous and polite at all times. When talking with people who are not immediate members of you family or close circle of friends, you are expected to use the term gozaimasu. This is usually responded with arigatou gozaimasu or simply arigatou.
- Saying Happy Birthday
If you want to greet someone who is a superior or someone older than yourself, you may say O-tanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu. This phrase signifies more respect than the alternative phrase which is Tanjoubi omedetou. The latter is the more casual way of greeting on the day itself.
- The party
As you would expect, Japanese people can be quite reserved when it comes to celebrating birthdays. If you are invited to one, you have to feel quite special because the guest list doesn't usually run long. The family often goes out to dine somewhere nice (usually a Japanese restaurant) to celebrate the day. Oftentimes, a very grand meal is ordered to mark the day.
The "Happy Birthday" song also has a Japanese translation that is sung during the party. The English and original version of the song has seen increased use through the years due to westernization of modern Japanese culture. Just like in parties in the west, the birthday celebrant also blows out candles on a cake. Presents are also usually given to the person being honored at the party.
- Gift giving
Gift giving is not originally a Japanese custom, but with influences from the west, this has become an accepted practice, especially in the urban areas. It's polite to hand gifts using both hands, and also to receive the present with both hands. Don't expect the receiver to open the gift in your presence, though. It's considered polite and traditional to open presents outside of the presence of the gift-giver. That is, unless perhaps the giver and receiver are very close friends.
Also, you should be mindful of the cost of the presents that you give. Sometimes, giving presents that are too lavish or expensive might add stress to your relationship with the receiver, as he might feel indebted. Still, you should not give gifts that are too cheap or inexpensive, especially if the recipient is considered to be of high social stature.
- Other customs
To the older generation, however, and in the other regions of Japan, the celebration of birthdays is not quite customary. Since Japanese culture didn't really adopt the Gregorian calendar until the last century, the marking of the exact date of one's birth is not something that most people are used to. In olden times, actually, the Japanese celebrated everyone's birth day on New Year's day.
As with any custom or culture that have crossed borders and seas, it's good to be mindful of the nuances, especially if you are visiting in a foreign country. Even if the celebration of birthdays is mostly a western concept, the cultures that have adopted it usually put in their own twists and interpretations.