The age at which one officially becomes an adult and enters society differs depending on one’s culture. In the United States, 21 is the age at which you are considered a full-fledged adult, while in South Korea the age is 19, and in countries such as Iran and Indonesia it’s as early as 15! And everyone knows that young witches and wizards like Harry Potter become of age at 17. In Japan, 20 is the magic number. It’s considered such an auspicious event that it’s an official national holiday and there is a whole ceremony devoted to it: the seijin-shiki (成人式), or Coming of Age . It takes place on the second Monday of January, making this year’s seijin-shiki on January 9th. Similar to a bar or bat mizvah, it’s a celebration of entering adulthood.
The Tradition of Seijin-Shiki
Of course Japan has its own traditions on how best to celebrate the delicate balance of being able to legally drink and all the pesky responsibility that comes with it. The ceremony itself is a rather somber event, taking place at local and prefectural offices. It congratulates and encourages all those who have reached the age of maturity that year. The tradition called genpuku (元服) dates back to as early as 714 AD, when a young prince wore special robes and a new hairstyle to present himself as an official adult. The tradition is based on a Chinese custom from the Tang Dynasty and even today the newly legal young women and men dress up in traditional attire. The ceremony was established as a holiday in 1948 and had proved to be popular ever since.
During the ceremony, government officials speak about how the new adults all have responsibilities to society as well as some new perks: being able to drink, smoke, drive, gamble, and go to hostess bars. Anyone who has turned 20 from April 2nd of the previous year or will turn 20 by April 1st of the current year is welcome to attend. The best thing about the seijin-shiki is that it’s a chance for women to get dressed up in furisode (振袖)which is a gorgeous long-sleeved kimono, and zōri (草履) wooden slippers. White fury shawls are also worn to keep warm in the cold. The women will usually go to the hair salon and it ends up being an expensive affair even though most girls rent the furisode. Perhaps a bit like a quinceañera. Some men wear traditional hakama (袴), but most usually wear suits. Of course after all the hours of primping the women go through, there’s plenty of picture taking! Once the ceremony part is over, the young adults go off with friends and family to let their hair down and celebrate at restaurants and bars.
As auspicious as the event is, in recent years attendance has been declining. The phenomenon is partially due to Japan’s declining birth rate and its shrinking population. At its peak in 1976, approximately 2.76 million newly-20-year olds attended the ceremony. By 2012, attendance dropped to 1.22 million. Some people have decided the ceremony is not that important or too much of a financial commitment.
However, for those who do attend, the seijin-shiki is a fun event to celebrate with family and friends and an excellent opportunity to get dressed up. The seijin- shiki is also a great way to make new friends, and see a variety of beautiful, traditional Japanese clothing! Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo are bound to have huge gatherings! If you’re in Japan during the New Year, be on the lookout for the new 20 year olds in gorgeous furisode and suits on their way to celebrate the new chapter of their life!
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