The Taste of Freedom
COMING OF AGE IN JAPAN HAS EVOLVED FROM AN ANCIENT RITE OF PASSAGE TO A RAUCOUS FESTIVAL
Alex Campbell Every
year, groups of young Japanese men clad in designer business suits and women donning traditional furisode (kimonos worn by single women) gather to celebrate their coming of age through a riotous – and opulent – day of celebration.
Held annually on the second Monday in January, the Coming of Age Day – also called Seijin-no-hi – allows young adults who turned 20 in the previous year (or who will do so before March 31 in the current year) to celebrate as they are officially declared “adults”, with the right to drink and smoke (and formerly, to vote, until the legislation was changed to age 18 in June 2016). The certified age marking adulthood has varied at different stages of Japanese history. During the Edo period (1603–1868), for example, boys became men in a ceremony called genpuku at age 15, and girls during the mogi ritual at age 13, marked by the change into adult clothing – and a new haircut. Twenty was declared the age standard marking adulthood for both genders in 1876.
Where once the formal coming-ofage ceremony was a very traditional rite of passage practised by ancient samurai families (rumoured to have been started by a young prince in 714 AD), today, Japanese youth welcome their newfound freedom with extravagant splurging.
Many Japanese women fork out over USD10,000 for their shimmering kimonos, and beauty treatments and hair appointments are booked up to a year in advance, adding an additional few hundred dollars to the lofty bill. Salons open for 24 hours, Hello Kitty designs dominate the accessories of choice. Japanese cities are a heady fog of hairspray and perfume.
Thousands of 20-year-olds flock to theme parks: Disneyland teems with selfie sticks and photo opportunities with Mickey Mouse, and over 4,000 people crowd Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park, clustered into pods of pouting peace signs.
But while assembling in the popular theme parks to hang out with cartoon characters may seem like a rather childish way to celebrate newfound adult legality, the candy floss is soon traded in for harder tack as celebrants flock towards the strips of glittering parties, finally flashing their laminated identification cards and sailing past bouncers into the cities’ heaving nightclubs.
That is not to say that custom has flown the coop completely in the contemporary practice: Many young adults still offer prayers at shrines across Japan over the holiday. Town halls host ceremonies, filled with families and friends.
After attending a purification ceremony with a Shinto priest, many young men and women hang up ema – small wooden plaques with inscribed prayers and wishes – at Shinto shrines in the hope of blessings from the kami (spirits) for their life ahead. Many Japanese use the time to reflect on their transformation into adulthood and the associated responsibilities that will separate them from their teenage years.
But amidst the glitz and glam and the fashion, there’s a more sombre undertone coursing beneath the overt hedonism of the occasion: Youth unemployment in Japan has increased, and 2017 saw the lowest number of new adults recorded since the government started keeping demographic statistics in 1968, decreasing by 50,000 compared to 2016’s estimate. While that may be viewed in a positive light given the global overpopulation problem, the declining birth rate presents a problem for development, as Japan’s society is dominated by an ageing population.
Still, on Seijin-no-hi, the statistics are drowned out by the squeals of excitable women and the clinking of overflowing sake glasses. Speaking to Agence France Presse, 20-year-old Reiko Nakamura admits: “I did think ‘Yikes, I’m an adult’ when I turned 20. I have to think about my future so it’s a little scary.” However, caught up in the spirit of the occasion, she gushes: “But, for now, I just want to enjoy a night out drinking with friends.” ag
Hello Kitty designs dominate the accessories of choice. Japanese cities are a heady fog of hairspray and perfume