Commencing Life as Adults
Each year in January, young men and women—those who have turned hatachi, or 20 years old—gather at public halls, community centers, and other venues across the country to celebrate crossing the threshold into adulthood. The age of majority, when children legally join society as adults, is 20 in Japan. Many local governments and public organizations host seijinshiki or coming-of-age ceremonies to honor this passage, inviting all the young adults reaching the milestone during the concurrent school year. Newly minted seijin, or adults, attend events dressed in formal attire and take part in programs that commonly include speeches by local officials and well-known community figures, a reception, and the presentation of mementos commemorating the occasion.
Ceremonies are customarily held on Seijin no hi, Coming of Age Day, a national holiday observed on the second Monday of the month. There is a degree of regional variation in attire and accouterments, but women typically attend in brightly designed, long-sleeved kimonos, girding themselves against the chilly January air with furry stoles. Men generally dress in suits or traditional haori jackets and hakama (loose, skirtlike trousers). While ceremonies usually take place at publicly run venues, some regional authorities near popular attractions like Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan are known to stage events inside the theme parks.
The roots of the modern seijinshiki date back to the ancient genpukushiki of the Nara period (710–794), a rite marking a child’s transition, often around age 15, to adulthood. Depending on gender, social status, and other factors, participants would assume adult clothing and hairstyles, and in some instances a new name. Coming-of-age ceremonies, which in early times were observed largely by the elite class, have over the centuries grown to become an important social custom across society, changing and taking on different aspects with each successive era.
A Snowy Connection
Women attending a seijinshiki in Tokyo in 2013 trudge through a blanket of snow. (© Jiji)Seijinshiki take place at the height of winter. In colder regions, such as the northern island of Hokkaidō, snow adds a seasonal charm to ceremonies. But often an unexpected dusting of winter white becomes an unwelcome burden to attendees, many of whom are unaccustomed to moving around in traditional garb. The occurrence of snowy weather in lower latitudes is surprisingly common, with Tokyo and the surrounding Kantō area over the last 30 years experiencing snowy seijinshiki 13% of the time, or an average of roughly once a decade.
A Rite of Passage
New seijin join ceremonies to make a symbolic crossing into adulthood, which includes the freedom to indulge in such mature pastimes as drinking alcohol, smoking, and gambling. Until the Diet lowered the voting age to 18 in 2015, it also marked full participation in the nation’s democratic system.
Turning 20 also brings new responsibilities, such as paying into Japan’s social welfare scheme. And following instances of unlawful behavior, perpetrators face the full brunt of the nation’s judicial system. Some newly minted adults try their luck in this area right away—in recent years, news coverage of seijishiki has frequently included disruptive behavior by overzealous revelers.
Even with the burden of adulthood looming ahead, those attending ceremonies tend to leave grownup concerns for another time and focus instead on making seijinshiki vibrant celebrations of youth.