My Coming of Age Ceremony in Japan
Published: Thursday, April 17, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
On Jan. 14, 2008, I finally became an adult. In Japan, the age of majority is 20, not 18. And, unlike in the United States, when young people come of age, they are given all of the privileges of adulthood. No waiting several years between having the ability to vote or enlist and being allowed to drive freely or drink. The day a young person comes of age is an occasion for celebration.Coming-of-age day or "seijin no hi" originates from the genpuku and mogi ceremonies of the Heian era (794 A.D.-1185 A.D.), when girls and boys around ages 12 and 15, respectively, would receive their first adult clothing and new hairstyles. The girls were presented with a 12-layered kimono and were eligible to marry. In 1948, the Lunar New Year became a national holiday to celebrate young adults coming of age. The coming-of-age ceremony called "seijinshiki" is held annually. Fifty years later, seijin no hi was moved to the second Monday in January to make it easier for young people to attend the ceremony.
Seijinshiki are very expensive, especially for girls. Because of the difficulty of preparing for seijinshiki, local hotels offer package deals that offer the services of a makeup artist, hairdresser, professional kimono dresser and photographer. I went to the beauty parlor to have my hair and makeup done - simultaneously, as it turned out. I had my hair done in the "nihongami" - literally "Japanese hair" - style. My hair was swept up into a puffed-out bun at the top of my head and held together with dozens of hairpins and other ornaments, including flowers.
After getting my makeup done, I had another group of women help me put on my kimono. This took over an hour because it is so complex and is worn so rarely. I wore a dark blue vintage outer kimono with pink and white chrysanthemums and vines twisting around the entire kimono. I had a total of four layers of clothing and about 20 ties to keep my kimono in place since they don't come in sizes. It felt strange to have so much weight from my two layers of long sleeves dragging on my arms.
My "obi," or sash, which ties in the back, was gold with green, white, red and silver cranes. The obi is tied differently on this day to signify that a young woman is coming of age. I wore "tabi," white socks that separate the big toe from the rest of the foot, and gold "zori," sandals that look similar to flip-flops but with a thicker sole. Having rarely worn a real kimono and zori, it took some time to get used to the shuffling walk and sitting forward in a chair on account of my obi.
After getting ready, I went with many others to the Kumamoto Prefecture Hall to attend the actual ceremony. For weeks they had predicted snow and rain, but it was beautiful, sunny and cold. The auditorium and its nearby streets were packed with hundreds of young people. The styles, colors and patterns of kimono varied greatly. A few girls wore black kimonos. A majority wore kimonos with a solid color background bearing designs of different flowers. The men typically wear suits, though some wore traditional Japanese "hakama" - ankle-length, skirt-like pants with wide legs - and a special half-kimono worn with hakama. Some men even had cornrows or wore neon pink half-kimonos with hakama. It was quite a sight to see.
During the ceremony, the mayor and other important officials gave speeches, congratulating us on our entry into the adult world, but also asked us to remember that it was with the help of our family, friends and neighbors that we were there. The speeches were followed by performances by local adults and children. Afterwards, the crowd of new adults dispersed to celebrate with families and friends, many going off to nearby bars. I went to lunch, along with 30 or so of my relatives, many of whom I was meeting for the first time.
This was one of the first times that I really immersed myself in Japanese culture. I hadn't had much interest in the ceremony until a couple of years ago when I decided that I also wanted to participate.