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Adulthood: What it means to come of age for Japanese students

Daniel Driscoll

Fri May 01 2015

Coming of age group

EARLIER this year, 96 Japanese exchange students were invited to attend a a traditional ‘Coming of Age Ceremony’, hosted by the Victorian Government. Daniel Driscoll spoke with Japanese students from Swinburne University to get their thoughts on what being an adult is all about.

The ‘Coming of Age Ceremony’ (or ‘Seijin no hi’  in Japanese) is an event annually held in Japan on the second Monday of January. For 96 Japanese students from Tamagawa University who were studying in Australia as part of the Victoria Japan Global Exchange Program, attending this momentous event back home was not an easy option.

Fortunately, there was an alternative. Earlier this year, they were invited to a ‘Coming of Age Ceremony’ hosted by the Victorian Government, the first of its kind in the state.

Dressed in their best clothes, students were invited to the residence of Ms Keiko Haneda, the Consul-General of Japan in Melbourne. In particular, they were congratulated on reaching the age of 20 – the recognised age of adulthood in Japan.

Ms Haneda was proud of the students in attendance, expressing their decision to study overseas as one that was brave. She also said that the ceremony itself would become a day students would “remember for the rest of their young lives”.

Minister for Training and Skills, Steven Herbert also congratulated students on reaching the age of adulthood.

Meld spoke to several Japanese students from Swinburne University who attended the ceremony, all of whom deemed the event as being an important one. Kana Tajima was one such student.

“[The] coming of age ceremony is a step on the way to maturity. Usually [at these ceremonies] we meet old friends and we are glad to see each other’s growth. In addition I show gratitude towards my parents and other relatives [at the ceremony] which is really important to me,” said Tajima.

Another student, Yuko Tanaka, supported Ms Tajima’s statements.

“It’s a big ceremony that I can have only once in my entire life,” expressed Ms Tanaka.

In Japan, local government bodies hold these ceremonies in their local cities and invite young men and women to attend in their best clothes. Males generally wear suits while a large number of females choose to wear a traditional furisode, a special type of kimono that features long sleeves and elaborate designs.

Some students were a little disappointed for not being able to attend the ceremony in their home country, like Mina Hirai whose mother had put in extra effort for her daughter to look good on the Coming of Age Day.

“When I was a junior high school student, my mother ordered a [newly-made] furisode from Kyoto, and I really wanted to wear it [for this occasion].”

After the initial ceremony, people typically visit shrines and party to mark turning 20. As new adults, they are encouraged to join society as responsible individuals. Once a young person turns 20 in Japan, they can legally drink, smoke, vote, and are urged to become self-reliant.

The idea of becoming self-reliant and responsible for oneself appears to be an integral idea that students take seriously.

“I’m more independent [now] than I was in Japan. I must think of everything by myself [and that has helped me] grow,” echoed Ms Tajima.

Students listening to the Consul-General to Japan make a speech. Image supplied.

Students listened to a number of speeches on the day. Image supplied.

The coming of age ceremony harkens back to early 700 AD, although according to an article from Japan Foundation Sydney, historically there was no precise age determined for adulthood (i.e. ceremonies generally being held between the ages of 10–16 for boys and or 12–16 for girls). When the ceremony was completed, the person was considered eligible to take on adult responsibilities including participating in religious ceremonies and getting married.

It wasn’t until 1876 where the age of adulthood for both genders was defined at 20 and by 1948, Coming of Age Day became a national holiday. The ceremony remains popular in Japan but participation has been on the decline in recent years. According to Quartz, only 1.2 million people celebrated on time in 2013, which was less than half of the 2.46 million who celebrated the day in 1970.

Student Yuito Orihara agrees with these statistics but nevertheless feels the ceremony is still “very important”.

“Recently, many young people [haven’t attended the ceremony], therefore it does seem to be going out style,” said Mr Orihara.

Students interacting with Australian native animals as part of the occasion. Image supplied.

Students interacting with Australian native animals as part of the occasion. Image supplied.

When asked whether coming of age would have an impact on her student’s experience here in Australia, Ms Tanaka said that even though she could drink alcohol and smoke lawfully, it didn’t necessarily mean it was something she would do.

“Whatever I [decide to do] nobody will stop me from doing it, [but] I [just] have to [take] responsibility [of what I do].”

Overall the students were grateful to be able to participate in such an important rite of passage, even if it happens to be thousands of kilometres away from home.

“It was a wonderful experience for me, because normally I [would’ve attended] the coming of age ceremony in Japan but [being in] Australia [meant that I couldn’t]. But thanks to the Japanese Embassy I could attend [one and it turned out to be] a precious time,” expressed Mr Orihara.