By Alexander Brown
Seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day) is a Japanese public holiday that takes place yearly on the second Monday of January, celebrating those who’ve reached the legal age of adulthood between April 2nd of the prior year, and April 1st of the current. While this has traditionally been a ceremony reserved for people turning 20 years old, this was lowered to 18 in April of 2022. In this Tokyoesque Insights article, we delve into the Japanese tradition of seijinshiki – Japan’s Coming of Age Ceremonies, covering their history, cultural significance and what makes them so unique in the year 2023.
The History of seijinshiki and seijin no hi
While coming of age ceremonies have been recorded happening in Japan as early as 714AD, the seijinshiki in its current form began in 1946, when the local government of Saitama sought to raise the spirits of young people feeling hopeless about the future in the aftermath of the Second World War. Organised with heavy involvement from youth groups at the time, it was originally named 青年祭 (seinenmatsuri – Young Persons’ Festival), before soon being adapted to 成人式 – or seijinshiki as we know its. The idea grew highly popular, and quickly spread across Japan.
As other areas joined in at a rapid pace, the holiday of seijin no hi – Coming of Age Day was enshrined in 1948. At the time, it was set to occur every year on the 15th of January, however this was changed in the year 2000 with the introduction of the Happy Monday system, which ensures that public holidays lie adjacent to the weekend to provide people with longer rests. Since then, it has taken place on the second Monday of January. It still serves as an important milestone to this day, allowing Japanese society (including participants’ families) to commemorate sending young people off to participate in the wider world.
While seijin no hi is the largest celebration of an age milestone in Japan, it is far from the only one. Others include shichi go san (literally 7, 5, 3), celebrating boys reaching the ages of 3 and 5, and girls of 3 and 7. This has its roots in the Heian era (794-1185AD) when infant mortality rates were much higher, serving to give thanks for their survival and wish them good health and longevity.
Seijinshiki Coming of Age ceremonies generally take place on seijin no hi, occurring all across Japan in local government buildings such as city halls. Every year they receive mass attention from the media, and this has been all the more so in recent years due to Japan’s continually ageing population.
During the ceremonies themselves, attendees gather to sit and listen to speeches from significant individuals such as government officials or, at times, celebrities. In 2012, Miyako City in Iwate Prefecture received a video message from Japanese actor Ken Watanabe. Small gifts are also given out.
But let’s dive into what is perhaps the most exciting part of the whole celebration for many – the clothing.
Traditional seijinshiki Clothing
One of the primary reasons young people look forward to seijinshiki, other than a rare chance to meet up with old friends and classmates, is the opportunity to dress in grand, traditional clothing. Let’s run through what this involves.
Women most commonly wear furisode – a type of kimono with long sleeves. As seen below, this is generally accompanied by hair decorations, makeup and traditional zori sandals. Due to the coldness of the season however, it is also common to wear a thick scarf to accompany the outfit.
As kimono, furisode included, are generally very expensive (ranging generally from several hundred to several thousands of pounds), it’s common for garments to be handed down throughout the years. Many young women even attend their seijinshiki in furisode formerly worn by their grandmother.
For men, the standard choice is generally between a suit, or a haorihakama – a traditional Japanese haori jacket paired with wide-legged hakama trousers and geta cleft-toed sandals. The colours are often more muted, with simpler designs than kimono. This is not always the case however – there are many young Japanese men who look to stand out with more vibrant designs, and also those reflecting subculture fashion styles such as yankii – which takes much influence from the bousouzoku Japanese biker gang styles of the 1980s.
Breaking the Mold – Unusual seijinshiki
While most seijinshiki are held in government buildings, this is not always the case. Some cities choose to go above and beyond in giving their new adults an especially memorable experience, building on or breaking away from tradition in unusual ways.
Tokyo Disneyland – Urayasu City, Chiba Prefecture
Located just east of Tokyo, Urayasu City holds their annual seijinshiki at Tokyo Disneyland. As this is a highly populated area, the ceremony is held twice to accommodate for numbers. In part due to its grand location, this particular seijinshiki gets a lot of media attention.
Kamogawa Sea World – Kamogawa City, Chiba Prefecture
Also in Chiba Prefecture, Kamogawa City’s seijinshiki takes place at Kamogawa Sea World – a popular marine leisure centre. This is another ceremony that gets heavy media attention. Ceremony-goers are invited to take pictures with the animals, making for quite the spectacle.
Golden Week seijinshiki – Niigata Prefecture
Location isn’t the only thing to consider when thinking of unusual seijinshiki. Niigata Prefecture, lying on Japan’s heavily snowy north-western coast, experiences very heavy snow during January. For this reason, many cities in the prefecture choose to break the mold and hold their seijinshiki during Japan’s holiday season of Golden Week (late April to early May), allowing students to better enjoy the symbolic ceremony.
Summer seijinshiki – Aomori and Akita Prefectures
The prefectures of Aomori and Akita are situated even further north than Niigata, and so also experience very cold temperatures and heavy snowfall in January. Many localities in these prefectures choose to hold their seijinshiki even later than in Niigata – waiting until the summer.
Reflecting a Diverse Japan
As we’ve seen, there are many examples of seijinshiki that build on tradition, daring to take new directions. There are also growing trends of seijinshiki that work to reflect a more diverse Japan, providing spaces in which people can .
Kansai LGBT Seijinshiki
For many LGBT young people, ceremonies with heavily gendered dress codes like seijinshiki can be difficult to navigate. With this in mind, LGBT-focused seijinshiki such as Kansai LGBT Seijinshiki have appeared. Kansai LGBT Seijinshiki began in 2014, giving LGBT Japanese people in the Kansai area a chance to enjoy the important life event in an accepting space, with no pressure around gender-based dress codes.
Held across various locations in and around Osaka, the event involves LGBT guest speakers, and tries to serve as a kick-off point from which young adults can live as their authentic selves (ari no mama no jibun). Entry is free and has been open to the public, however there are strict rules around photography to maintain a comforting environment for young Japanese LGBT people to express themselves.
Resident Korean seijinshiki
While it’s true that Japan is considerably more ethnically homogenous than most countries, it is still home to many ethnic minorities, numbering approximately 2.8 million in 2020. Of this, ethnic Koreans are one of the largest demographics, and a seijinshiki was held in Nagoya City last year allowing them to celebrate their heritage while taking part in the national holiday. Ceremony-goers wore a mixture of suits and traditional Korean hanbok dress.
Due to historically discriminative practices against ethnic Koreans in Japan regarding hiring and acquisition of citizenship, and also continuing anti-Korean sentiment in the country, this kind of open expression is seen as particularly important by some – reflecting a younger, more ethnically diverse Japan that takes a more open-minded view of what it means to be Japanese.
Other Ways of Celebrating seijin no hi
While many people opt just to take part in the seijinshiki ceremony and dousoukai class reunion(s), the custom of returning to one’s hometown creates further opportunities for celebration with family and friends.
It’s traditionally common in Japan for people to visit shrines ahead of large life events, to wish for good fortune, health and prosperity in the future. As an important milestone of age, seijin no hi is not an exception. Some people looking to really memorialise the day book photoshoots while in their formal dress of choice.
This custom of coming of age shrine visits is not currently massively popular, but may pick up traction in the coming years, with seijin no hi now landing very close to university entrance exams. It is already common for students to visit shrines to pray for good luck in their exams, so there is a high possibility for crossover here.
Class Reunions – dousoukai
As many people traditionally return to their hometowns for Coming of Age Day, it is also very common for celebrators to hold class reunions (dousoukai), where former middle and high school friends will gather to celebrate their adulthood and new freedoms (such as the ability to drink alcohol). This is seen by many as an important chance to reconnect with former friends, keeping connections alive.
It’s most common for these parties to take place soon after seijin no hi, however some opt to have their gatherings later on in the year, for example during golden week. It’s common also for people to attend multiple parties. While parties are often for students only, due to the close student-teacher relations built in Japan’s education system it’s also not unheard of for teachers to get involved as well, as seen below.
Some bars have taken Coming of Age Day as an opportunity to market to young people considering dousoukai parties, offering special promotions for 20 year olds. With the age of adulthood having been lowered to 18 however, this will change, closing opportunities for certain establishments like bars and izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs), but perhaps creating new opportunities for others to appeal to Japan’s new seijin.
The Legalities of Adulthood for Young Japanese People
While the age of adulthood has indeed been lowered to 18, this does not mean that other laws have been affected. Japanese 18 year olds will still be unable to drink, smoke, or gamble (in its limited form in Japan) until age 20. They will however be able to reap certain benefits, being allowed to sign rental leases and get married without the permission of a parent.
Japanese Legal Voting Age
It could be easy to conflate the recent changes to Japan’s legal age of adulthood with changes to the age of voting, however these two changes took place entirely separately. As of 2016, 18 year olds gained the right to vote, having previously needed to wait till they turned 20. Constituting a new 2.4 million voters in the electorate, this new social responsibility was likely taken into consideration when reducing the legal age of adulthood.
If you’re interested in reading more about the generation that will drive Japan forwards in the future, why not read our article on Japan’s Gen-Z, known as the satori generation?
As we’ve established, seijinshiki are an important milestone for many, and while still maintaining tradition, are increasingly reflecting a more diverse modern Japan. In a time where the country is severely concerned about its future as birth rates remain low and life expectancies rise, these ceremonies seem to have only grown in their symbolic importance as people look to the youth as the bearers of Japan’s future.
As Japan continues to change at a more rapid pace than ever, it’s important we continually review what we think we know about its various demographics. This is where we come in. Tokyoesque has extensive experience providing real, actionable insights on Japanese consumers that arm businesses with the knowledge and awareness they need to excel in the Japanese market. Interested in the expert local insights our multicultural, bilingual team provide? Contact Tokyoesque.
See also: Culture Day in Japan
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