The Taste of Free­dom


Asian Geographic - - Front Page - Text

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

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