Seijin no hi: coming of age in Japan
Ian D. Robinson.
Japan abounds with festivals. Every region has its own speciality and even individual villages will have their own unique day of celebration when you can witness things like near naked men running through the streets with a giant burning pyre held aloft, or possibly a seasonal exaltation in honor of the squid.
One of the simplest and most visually attractive is the nationwide celebration of ‘seijin no hi’, coming of age day, which, in neat and tidy Japan is held each year on the second Monday in January, a public holiday to congratulate those who have reached the nice round number of twenty. The tradition goes back well over a thousand years when young princes began marking their second decade by wearing adult clothes and hairstyles.
Nowadays, anyone who has turned twenty in the previous year is invited to attend a ceremony at the local town hall to be congratulated by the mayor and city officials on reaching their majority. Most young people turn up to what sounds like a rather dull series of speeches by old men but the real thrill of the day for these new ‘adults’ is the opportunity to dress up.
On the second Monday in January I set out from my home near the centre of Kobe city not knowing exactly where the seijin no hi celebrations were to be held, however it was easy enough to find my way to city hall as all I had to do was follow the giggling throngs of young ladies in their exquisite ‘furisode’, a version of the kimono with long draping sleeves which reach to the ground. The garment is only worn by the unmarried as historically after they got hitched the girls had to start doing housework, cooking, cleaning and bringing up kids so the seriously-get-in-your-way sleeves would get the chop. I kept my distance as I trailed onto the subway so as not to look too much like a creepy foreigner following girls around with a camera.
The scene in the open square in front of the hall made me think of an overstocked tank of tropical fish. Kimonos of every colour in the spectrum mingled, squealing with delight at glass breaking pitch when they finally located meet-up-with-you-there-friends in the throng. Shuffling steps in the restrictive garments and ‘zori’ sandals, patterns of multi-coloured blossoms and blooms, the bustles of the ‘obi’ belt tied at the back in impossible knots that would challenge the most prepared scout master, enough fur stoles, both faux and not, to get a tribe of Eskimo through the winter and enough hair spray to make another ozone hole.
It was in fact a big, big hair day with styles bordering on the beehive alongside the traditional Japanese adorned with buds and florets. Long fake lashes and longer fake nails completed the look, the only accessory more omnipresent than the tiny handbags was the cell phone. The kimono is such a complex item of clothing that very few women can put the three layers on themselves, this has lead to a whole profession of dressers developing and seijin no hi is their busiest day with bookings for the up to hour long fitting beginning at 3 a.m. on the day!
Hours have gone into the preparations and with even a standard kimono retailing for around $NZ10,000 everything has to be just right, and for many a young lass this is the first time she will have worn big girl’s clothes. Formal portraits often follow the festivities and these were once used by parents to showcase their daughters to possible suitors.
Wandering through the crowd the infamous Japanese shyness was nowhere to be found as everyone happily posed for the creepy foreigner with the camera. The young men had had a much less stressful morning getting ready for the big day, a few were decked out in ‘hakama’ the baggy samurai pants that were perhaps MC Hammer’s inspiration but most were in the sombre suits they will soon be donning every morning as they start their lives as overworked, over drinking salary men.
I asked one young lady what becoming twenty means to her; “I’m free! I’m free!” she squeaked.
The young men I asked invariably gave me answers of something like; “I can drink!”
Among the crowd were a few oriental flowers from the Asian mainland in ‘ham-bok’, part of Kobe’s generations old Korean community. And even a few in ‘oiran’ style with off-the-shoulder worn kimono revealing glitter or fake tattoo embellished skin. Oiran were the forerunners of the geisha, hired entertainers and ladies of the night, in still-conservative Japan wearing the oiran style is tantamount to dressing as a hooker to go to the high school ball, somewhere in Kobe there was a mother thinking to herself ‘why did she have to go dressed like that?!’
The oddest and perhaps mostly alarming aspect of the day was the heavy police presence. The streets leading to the hall were lined with uniforms and three buses with metal-grilled windows waited to haul trouble makers off to the cells for the night. In recent years all out brawls have broken out between rival gangs of young men who fancy themselves as street fighting comic heroes and who have welcomed their foray into adulthood with too much sake.
These incidents have lead many of the older generation to come to the opinion that these young ‘adults’ aren’t anywhere near being up to the challenges and responsibilities this era of their lives brings. However, the senior folk in a very age weighted population will probably have no other choice but to rely on the young upstarts, 2012 saw the smallest number of Japanese reaching their seijin no hi in history.