Wednesday 29 January 2020

Coming of Age Day: Furisode Kimonos and the Legal Age for Everything

Selfie time at the "Coming of Age" ceremony
The second Monday in January - the 13th this year - is a public holiday in Japan known as Seijin no Hi (成人の日) or "Coming of Age Day." Seijin means "adult" or grown-up and in Japan this has traditionally refered to someone 20-years or older. On this day, cities, towns, and villages hold ceremonies (seijin-shiki=成人式)for those who turned 20 in that academic year (in this case April 2019 to March 2020). This year, only 1.22 million youngsters officially became adults, reflecting the shrinking number of children, a serious social problem known as shōshika (少子化): the number of babies hit a post-war low of 918,397 in 2018 something which will drive a dramatic population fall in the coming years.

There have been a number of problems relating to "Coming of Age Day" ceremonies in recent years. Primarily, there has been a drop in interest with youngsters seeing the ceremonies (and especially speeches) as boring and out of touch resulting in rising cases of disruptive behaviour, including drinking,  unconventional dress, and even heckling (the ceremony I attended this year was interrupted by two yankī or delinquent hot-rodders dressed in flashy kimonos revving their bikes!). As a result, many localities have been trying to make ceremonies more appealing to the new adults with incentives such as free entry to local attractions, photos, prizes and giveaways, and SNS stamps.

Another reason participation in events may be falling could be the exorbitant cost of buying or even just renting a kimono, worn by the majority of women (a few guys wear hakama or male kimono but most wear suits). To be more precise, women wear a long-sleeved kimono called a furisode (振袖) - furi means to swing or shake while sode is sleeve. The furisode is only worn by unmarried women; married women usually wear a less colourful tomesode or hōmongi kimono with narrower sleeves (meaning you can usually tell a woman's marital status by the sleeves on her kimono - not very gender equal!). Designs tend to be bright, flashy, and attention-grabbing as the pictures show.

Trailing bangs or shokkaku (feeler/antenna)
A basic furisode rental together with all the accessories begins at around ¥100,000 (£700/$915) but can go far higher depending on the quality. Surprisingly, actually buying the kimono is not much more: for this reason we were torn whether to rent or buy but chose rental since there are few other chances to wear furisode plus proper maintenance is important. It is necessary to reserve your furisode early - sometimes up to two years in advance; the same is true for making an appointment at a beauty salon who will help you put on the kimono properly (pretty much impossible if you don't know what you're doing) and do your make-up and hair. Since most ceremonies are held in the morning, this usually means getting up incredibly early; by midday most of the girls are almost keeling over from exhaustion and lack of food and liquid (the tight obi belt - pictured below - merely adding to their misery).

One big talking point is what will happen when the legal age is officially lowered from 20 to 18 in April 2022. The most popular option seems to be to continue to hold the ceremonies for 20-year-olds though some places are proposing lowering the age. Interestingly, one merit of lowering the age is that drunken disturbances would cease to be a problem, since the drinking (and smoking) age will remain at 20 "for health reasons." The change will create even wider inconsistencies over the legal age for different activities, something highlighted in the table below which compares Japan and the UK.