Last week, I celebrated my 20th birthday in Japan. While that may not sound too special an age to many, it is the age of becoming an adult in Japan, bringing along new responsibilities and rights. As of last week, I can now legally sign contracts and pass by the alcohol shelves in stores without awkwardly averting my gaze.
Japanese culture stresses the importance of “coming of age,” recognizing the significance of aging to adulthood. In addition to being the age that confers the right to sign contracts, drink, and other things, 20 used to be the legal age to gain the right to vote (until the law lowered the age to 18 this past year). Even the Japanese language has a special word to mean “20 years old” (hatachi), and local governments and city halls hold lavish events and celebrations for Coming of Age Day – a national public holiday – on the second Monday of every January. Even though my birthday came after the holiday, because it landed within the designated period between April of last year and this April, I was invited to the event held by my city ward’s office at an upscale hotel in the city center.
While the event itself seemed fairly similar to other receptions – speeches by city hall personnel, plenty of free food, and a celebratory toast – the significance of the ceremony made the occasion seem on a whole new level. Girls were dressed up in traditional Japanese kimono, with multitudes of vivid colors to celebrate the occasion, while guys typically wore dark suits and ties. Despite all of the formalities, many of the newly inducted adults celebrated joyfully with friends and family, upholding a long-standing ceremonial tradition.
Yet while these celebrations may still be enjoyed by many across Japan, societal trends have created noticeable challenges for the tradition. Nationwide attendance at these sorts of “coming of age” ceremonies has dropped fairly consistently over at least the past decade, with Japan’s declining birth rate and lower levels of enthusiasm and interest among young adults being cited as reasons for the decline. Modernization and busy lifestyles with students ever so focused on future careers and job hunting prospects have also shifted attention away from cultural traditions and customs, which have slowly begun to lose their significance and meaning in society as older generations continue to age. This trend has only continued to accelerate with younger generations more interested in moving towards large urban cities and away from rural areas, exacerbating a disparity not only between urban and rural, but also across generations with diverging perspectives towards tradition.
Nevertheless, many Japanese traditions have lived on, whether in modern forms adapting to the 21st century, or continuing on close to their original forms due to being passed down from generation to generation. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend such a traditional ceremony, and I hope these traditions continue for generations to come.
Until the next ceremony!