Reaching the legal age of adulthood is an important milestone in most cultures, and in Japan it is celebrated on Seijin no Hi, Coming-of-Age Day. The legal age in Japan is defined as twenty years from one’s date of birth, and upon reaching age 20 one becomes a shin-seijin, or ‘new adult’, and is legally entitled to vote, drink and manage one’s own affairs. An interesting exception applies to members of the imperial family, who are legally recognised as adults from age 18. Under a peculiar quirk of Japanese law, commoners are also recognised as adults if they marry before they turn 20 (men may marry from age 18 and women from age 16, although parental permission is required); but they are nonetheless precluded from drinking, smoking and voting. For most Japanese, however, adulthood officially begins on their twentieth birthday.

To commemorate this coming-of-age, seijinshiki (coming-of-age ceremonies) are conducted by local government bodies throughout Japan on a given day each year, Seijin no Hi. Gazetted as a public holiday in 1948, Coming-of-Age Day was celebrated on 15 January every year until 1999, when a revision to the public holiday law moved certain holidays to Monday, allowing people to take more long weekends. From 2000, Coming-of-Age Day has been celebrated on the second Monday in January. In 2008, Coming-of-Age Day fell on 14 January.

Al though Seijin no Hi has been officially recognised only for the last sixty years, coming-of-age ceremonies have been observed in Japan since at least the seventh century. Historically, there was no precise age determined for the onset of adulthood, and ceremonies would generally be held between the ages of 10–16 for boys, or 12–16 for girls. In early days, a boy would have his coming-of-age ceremony when he reached a height of about 136 cm. Upon completion of the ceremony, the person would be considered eligible to assume adult responsibilities, to participate in religious ceremonies and to marry.

Male coming-of-age ceremonies were called genpuku, and centred around the presentation of new adult clothing. The new adult would be taken to a shrine, presented with his first adult wear, and would have his hair cut into an adult style. He would also be given a new adult name. In some clans, he would wear thick make-up and have his teeth blackened. Amongst the court nobility, the ceremony was known as kanrei (‘cap ceremony’), as it was from this point that the young man would wear the adult cap called a kammuri.

Female coming-of-age ceremonies, called mogi, were similarly based on the presentation of adult wear. The young woman at her coming-of- age would have her teeth blackened, her eyebrows shaved, thick make-up applied and eyebrows painted on. From the Edo Period (1603–1868), the female ceremony also came to be known as genpuku, and was held for young women when they were aged 18–20, and in some cases at the same time as marriage.

The resurgence of coming-of-age ceremonies as held today came about as a result of Japan’s post-war hardship. Concerned about the widespread despondency felt after Japan’s devastating loss and the effect that this had on the young people upon whose shoulders the country’s future hopes rested, the town of Warabi, just north of Tokyo, held a Youth Festival to lift their spirits. The leader of the town’s Youth Association planned a ceremony, which was held in tents on a school lawn on 22 November 1946. The idea spread, and Coming-of- Age Day was enshrined in law in 1948, “to realise the passage from youth to adulthood, and to celebrate and encourage young people embarking on their adult lives”.

For most young people, the coming-of-age ceremony is an opportunity to dress in their most formal clothes, and in an echo of the old traditions, the emphasis on clothing and makeup continues – particularly for women – to be an important part of the event. Almost all young men wear dark suits to their coming-of-age ceremonies, although a few wear the traditional hakama, a wide pleated garment tied at the waist and worn to the ankles. Young women universally wear an exquisite form of fine silk kimono called a furisode, brightly coloured and with long sleeves, that is traditionally worn by unmarried women. Notoriously expensive and difficult to put on, many families now hire a furisode and visit a professional for assistance in dressing. Even hiring a furisode is expensive, costing anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 yen (about A$1,000 – $3,000). Purchasing a new one typically costs in excess of 1,000,000 yen (about A$10,000). For most young women, the coming-of-age ceremony is the most formal event they will attend before marriage.

The coming-of-age ceremony usually includes speeches from distinguished figures such as the local heads of government, and guest speakers from various backgrounds. Programmes may also include musical or other cultural performances. Each shin-seijin is presented with a small token gift.

In some regions, practices vary slightly: in one island village in Okinawa, shin-seijin perform a dance to thank the villagers for their support. This has recently been broadcast nationally on Asahi TV. In some rural communities in northern Japan, coming-of-age ceremonies are held at different times of the year – sometimes during the five-day Golden Week holiday in early May, but usually during the O-Bon festival in July or August. This is because ceremonies held in mid-winter can be disrupted by heavy snowfalls, and also because many young people who have moved to the city for work or study can return home for the ceremony during the O-Bon period.

As Japanese society has changed over the last sixty years, young people’s attitudes to coming-of-age ceremonies have also changed, and many people now see problems associated with Coming-of-Age Day.

There has been a steady decline in the number of attendees since the 1970s, and in recent years many people have complained about the poor manners displayed by shin-seijin attending their own ceremonies. The most common problems appear to be chatting during speeches and talking on mobile phones , but have also included heckling the guest speakers and other disruptive behaviour. This has led some councils in Japan to rethink, or even cancel their annual coming-of-age ceremonies.

In 1999, famous Egyptologist Sakuji Yoshimura was invited to speak at a coming-of-age ceremony in Sendai. Appalled by the lack of manners shown to him, he later commented angrily that “this wasn’t a celebration for shinseijin, but for shin-seiji [newborn infants] – I will never speak at one of these ceremonies again.”

The following year, the mayor of Shizuoka told reporters at a press conference that the city would be better off cancelling their ceremony, “rather than keep throwing ratepayers’ money at coming-of-age ceremonies that fail to live up to their name.” In the end, following protests from kimono makers who feared that their business would suffer, the city continued with its programme, albeit on a smaller scale.

In 2001, a group of shin-seijin in Kochi heckled the mayor during his speech, calling out “go home, go home”. In numerous other cities and towns across Japan, small groups have set off firecrackers inside the venue, or created disturbances outside – occasionally resulting in arrests for disturbing the peace.

Many people now feel that the meaning of Coming-of-Age Day has been lost, as the need to encourage dispirited people in a post-war nation is now out of step with the youth of today. Some towns have tried breathe new life into the event by involving more youth in the planning process, to make the ceremony more relevant to them. Accordingly, some coming of- age ceremonies are now held in theme parks – Urayasu, in Chiba, now celebrates at Tokyo Disneyland.

Whether coming-of-age ceremonies continue to flourish or decline remains to be seen, but it is clear that they will need to evolve with society to meet the expectations of both the new generation of adults and the wider community as a whole.
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