One of the most significant dates on the Japanese calendar is Coming of Age Day, celebrated annually on the second Monday of January. It is a day when young people who have reached twenty years of age – the former age of majority – are welcomed into adulthood by their families and the wider community.
Anyone who is visiting or residing in Japan on that date cannot fail to notice young women everywhere dressed in long-sleeved kimonos known as furisode, and young men wearing kimono with hakama or – more often these days – a formal Western style suit. But is Coming of Age Day simply an excuse to dress up, or is there more to the tradition?
Growing Up in Japan
Before we take a look at the Coming of Age Day celebrations, it might be interesting to consider for a moment what coming of age in Japan actually entails and the attitudes of the nation towards young people in general.
What has always struck me about Japanese families is the importance they place upon their children and just how much parents are willing to sacrifice in putting their offspring right at the centre of every life decision they make. As a result of this, very young children in Japan can seem spoiled, or allowed to do whatever they want. But whilst it is true that parents, grandparents, the extended family, and other day-to-day carers are extremely tolerant of children’s behaviour, the fact is they are also very watchful and ready to impress upon unruly children that there are limits to what is acceptable.
This permissive attitude towards youngsters is perhaps understandable, given the progressively tougher and unforgiving trajectory young people are obliged to follow through junior high school to higher education, and on into their working lives; better they enjoy being carefree as kids, because it doesn’t last. More importantly though, most Japanese children grow into their teens with a very strong sense of family and with less likelihood of making moral lapses of judgement.
Coming of age, as the culmination to a steady process of growing up, might be seen by many young people around the world as the achieving of sexual, societal or political freedoms; pursuing intimate relationships, a desire to live independently, the right to marry, and the right to vote, etc., are all common enough aims of youth. However, I can think of no society where all such changes come about at the same age, and which are not subject to laws of one sort or another.
What the Law Says
Coming of Age Day continues to be celebrated in Japan for those who have reached 20 years of age, despite the fact that in 2015, the Age of Majority was lowered to 18. Just as people in the UK still celebrate their 21st birthdays, the tradition of coming of age, it seems, outweighs any legal definition of adulthood by voting privileges. Even so, the age at which Japanese people can marry without parental consent remains at 20 (otherwise the lower limit is 16 for girls and 18 for boys with their parents’ consent).
Reading the above, you might surprised to learn, therefore, that the Age of Consent in Japan is 13, the lowest of any developed nation. However, it makes sense when one understands how it is the family that bears ultimate responsibility for a child’s moral development in Japan, not the state or religion. Thirteen is also, obviously, the age at which many youngsters become ‘curious’ about their sexuality, so it would be hypocrisy for otherwise permissive and tolerant parents to deny the natural inclinations of their young.
Having said that, potential Wymanesque situations are prevented – as far as they ever can be – by city and prefectural laws concerned with lewdness or the sexual exploitation of minors, effectively raising the age of consensual sex to anything between 16 and 18. In Tokyo, for example, it is the latter.
But I digress.
The Coming of Age Day Ceremony
Although there have been coming of age ceremonies in Japan for well over a thousand years, the current Coming of Age Day holiday dates from 1948, in the same post-war era when women first got the vote. Until 2000, the holiday always fell on January 15th, after which it became part of the Happy Monday scheme that allows Japanese workers a long weekend off now and then. Hence, it is now held on the second Monday of January.
It used to be that only those who had already turned twenty could come of age on the day, but today any young person who turns twenty between the previous year’s April 2nd, and April 1st following Coming of Age Day will be invited to attend the ceremony in the town they reside in. The morning ceremonies usually take place at city offices, where local dignitaries give speeches, welcoming young people to the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. If you have ever had to suffer the long and meandering speeches that characterise formal Japanese events, you will understand why many young adults find the ceremony something of a yawn-fest!
After the speeches are over, small gifts will be handed out to the honoured guests as they embark on the rest of their lives as duly recognised adults. But they cannot escape just yet; not until they have been photographed in their finery by, and with, proud parents and grandparents. Many families will then insist on going for a meal at a traditional Japanese restaurant. But when they have finally finished pleasing the elders, the newly inducted adults can ditch their kimonos and indulge in a round of serious partying and drinking with those of their own age; and who could blame them?
Though obviously not just an excuse to dress up – the Japanese need no excuses in that respect – the Coming of Age Day outfit is something that girls in particular take extremely seriously. A formal kimono is both very expensive to buy, and a nightmare to put on, which is why most are either borrowed from relatives or hired for the occasion, and why women tend to employ the services of professional dressers for themselves and their daughters.
For Coming of Age Day, and November’s Shichi-Go-San ceremonies, beauty salons do a brisk trade in kimono fitting, as well as the makeup and hair styling that completes traditional dress. I am not sure that young men are afforded quite the same considerations, as even their traditional garb requires less skill to put on. Besides, they will probably be more concerned with how to get a clean shave without breaking out in a savage red rash.
A Final Thought
I think there are probably few of us who actually remember a single point in our lives when we consciously became aware of ourselves as adults, especially when the world keeps changing the game on us, and this is as true for the Japanese as it is for anyone. And it really doesn’t matter that the government has lowered the age of majority to 18; most people are adult enough to know that’s just another cynical ploy to gain votes.
In a country where market forces and an all pervasive media encourages even the very young to view themselves in an adult light, but where economic, social and educational inadequacies and uncertainties prevent many from realising their full potential, it is not surprising that so many young Japanese see Coming of Age Day as a meaningless anachronism; in fact, less than half of those who could attend, do so. That’s a shame, because Coming of Age Day is, at heart, an innocent tradition, and it’s never a good thing for countries, or individuals, to lose their innocence totally.
By Bill Ambler
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