Interpretation

     Despite modernization, the Japanese Coming-of-Age Day remains an easily distinguished rite of passage ceremony as were its predecessors in much earlier times. Using the outline which Arnold van Gennep highlighted in his influential 1909 book Les Rites de Passage , the events of Seijin-no-hi can be divided into three parts characteristic of a rite of passage: separation, liminality, and reaggregation (Turner and Turner 1982:202). The separation phase is demarcated by the removal of Japanese youths from their families to go to the ceremony on the second Monday of January. The custom that the parents remain behind and do not enter the ceremony itself is integral, so that a complete symbolic severing from the familiar older generation can occur (Web Japan 2001). When the youths are successfully separated from their parents, the liminal phase of Seijin-no-hi begins. This transitional period is marked by the wearing of formal clothes which mimic adult attire. The suits of the males and furisode of the females constitute the symbolism of sacra objects and promote the idea of ludic recombination, in which the youths pretend to be adults at the threshold ceremony (Turner and Turner 1982:202). During this liminal period, the words of guest speakers initiate a symbolic transformation in the twenty-year-olds, ushering them from childhood to adulthood. After the ceremony is complete, reaggregation occurs when the new adults return to their families and the normal pace of the world, completing the Seijin-no-hi rite of passage.

     Coming-of-Age Day is not only a traditional rite of passage, but bears important practical significance on the lives of its participants. Socially, Seijin-no-hi bestows the legal rights to drink alcoholic beverages and smoke tobacco products. These privileges are typically associated with adulthood in other cultures as well. Gaining individual rights such as these helps to foster a feeling of social integration into mainstream Japanese adult life. In addition, the Japanese are permitted to vote at the age of twenty. The Seijin-no-hi ritual itself does not grant the right to vote, as it is formally conveyed on a participant's twentieth birthday (Yamasa Institute). However, Coming-of-Age Day encourages thoughts of responsibility which often are directed at the theme of influencing the political structure. It must also be noted that along with the right to vote comes full adult legal stature. If the privileges granted by the rite of passage do not succeed in orienting its participants toward thoughts of adult obligations, the realization that one is now held accountable for adult laws and corresponding penalties certainly has a sobering effect.

     While Seijin-no-hi is of secular origin, Japanese youth sometimes choose to incorporate religious meaning to the rite of passage rituals. After the coming of age ceremony, temples and other religious locations are frequently visited. This practice sometimes leads to the creation of new sub-rituals. At the Kanda Myojin shrine in Tokyo , newly initiated adults dress in white and leap into cold baths to further celebrate the holiday (BBC 2002). This tradition has been continued for 15 years and the frigidity of the baths is ensured by the addition of ice blocks. Originally a Shinto ritual, the ice bath is augmented by ceremonial drum music and much spirited splashing, with the intent of testing manliness and preparing its participants for life. The practice helps to connect modern Coming-of-Age Day events with the much older indigenous religion of Japan , creating a fusion of past and present.

      The traditions of Coming-of-Age Day are meant to stimulate the integration of Japanese youth into the rigors and responsibilities of the adult world. Unfortunately, in recent years changing interests and values in Japan 's youth culture have led to a decline of interest in the holiday among many of its participants. General disrespect for guest speakers in many locations has received considerable media attention, detracting appreciably from the celebratory nature of Seijin-no-hi. In 2001 a group of youths in Kochi mocked Governor Daijiro Hashimoto to the point where he ordered them to "shut up" and leave the ceremony (Web Japan 2001). Similar incidences have provoked discussion about whether Seijin-no-hi is truly necessary and should be allowed to continue. The February 2004 town periodical of Seika, Japan proudly states that 388 local youth, 180 male and 208 female, participated in Coming-of-Age Day this year (Seika 2004:1). However, this is directly followed by an expression of displeasure at the increasing levels of disrespect directed at the ritual in other cities. These sentiments illustrate the sort of social frustration caused by an increasing shift between the views of adults who wish to promote traditional celebration and the growing number of youth who see little need for ritualized coming of age.

Contact Jim Aimers | ©2004 Miami University