Learning Japanese Holidays: Coming of Age Day

Published March 22nd, 2015

Almost every culture around the world celebrates the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. In America, a Sweet Sixteen party is a common way to honor the occasion. In Latin America, a quinceañera marks a woman’s passage from girl to woman on the day of her fifteenth birthday. But in Japan, the day they are believed to come of age is at twenty years old. This is also known as 成人 (Seijin no Hi), literally, “Coming of Age Day.” While Japan adopted the Western age system known as 満年齢 (man nenrei) in the early 20th century, historically they used a traditional system of counting age known as 数え年 (kazoedoshi). In this system, everyone is born at one year old, and everyone ages together when the New Year passes. Because of this tradition, these 成人式 (seijinshiki) ceremonies are held at the same time for everyone who will turn twenty before April of that year. This day, the second Monday in January, is one of only fifteen national Japanese holidays.

Japanese National Holidays

Coming of Age Day: You're now an adult.

When a boy or girl turns twenty in Japan, it marks their movement into adulthood, known as 二十歳 (hatachi), and marks the increased responsibility that comes with it. It also is the age you can legally vote, as well as smoke, and drink alcohol in Japan. Because of this, it is not just a symbolic transition but a tangible one in the life of a twenty-year old. Women will often wear an elaborate (and expensive) kimono with long sleeves known as a 振袖 (furisode) to the event. As this is the most formal kimono an unmarried, adult woman can wear, Japanese girls go all out in preparation for the big day. This includes making hair appointments and kimono fittings more than a year in advance! On the other hand, more and more men are choosing to wear Western-style suits in lieu of traditional dress. After the event, which is sponsored by local government, parties are frequently thrown for family and friends to attend. It’s truly a jubilant day!

Recently, however, there has been a new trend popping up that may begin to overshadow seijinshiki. This is known as 二分の一成人式 (nibun-no-ichi seijinshiki) or, “halfway to coming of age.” As you may be able to guess, this new ceremony happens when a boy or girl turns ten. With half of your childhood behind you and half of it left before you become hatachi, it is a time to thank your parents and think about your hopes and dreams for the future. Often speeches are made at school and children can share their aspirations with their parents and teachers. By 2008 more than half the schools in Tokyo were celebrating this festival, making it almost as popular as the traditional seijinshiki ceremony.

Up until the recent 2015 ceremony, seijinshiki had been consistently declining over the past decade. More and more nineteen and twenty year olds didn’t quite feel like adults and so declined to participate. However, this year, 1.26 million new adults attended ceremonies, the first upswing since 2007. With birth rates continually declining in Japan and an ever growing aging population, Japan needs more and more young adults ready to take on the responsibilities that come with growing up and entering the real world. Perhaps the increase in “half coming of age” is a new way of preparing young minds for the changes and challenges they are going to face, and to inspire them to participate in sejinshiki when the time comes.

How do you feel about the half-sejinshiki ceremony? Does your home country have different or unique rites of passage you’d like to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Image attribute: Dick Thomas Johnson