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.

Sunday 12 January 2020

Welcoming the New Year with Sticky Rice Cakes

Click for a snippet of all the Kōhaku songs
Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - Happy New year - to one and all! In the last few days there have been a lot of programmes looking back on 2019: according to a poll of Yomiuri readers, the top domestic news stories last year were (1) the new emperor and start of the Reiwa era (covered here) (2) the Japanese rugby team reaching the last eight of the world cup (here) (3) mass killing at Kyoto Animation studios in July (4) October 1st consumption tax raise to 10% and (5) typhoons hitting eastern Japan in September through October. Another traditional way to look back over the year is the annual 4.5 hour New Year's Eve Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦) or "Red and White Song Contest" in which the top artists of the year split into teams of red (women) and white (men) and vie for the votes of audience and judges. American rock band KISS featured in a special one-off performance with legendary X-Japan drummer Yoshiki who was heavily influenced by the group, one of the few foreign bands to appear (together with Korean band TWICE).

Dango mochi balls
New Year wouldn't be complete in Japan without mochi (餅) or sticky rice cakes which take many forms. While the glutinous rice is eaten year-round - small round mochi dumplings (dango=団子) on a stick (pictured) are a popular snack - it is an especially common New Year food and decoration. The picture right shows a typical shop-bought mochi decoration made of plastic with a small mochi inside, known as kagami-mochi (鏡餅)
Disney themed kagami-mochi for sale
The name kagami-mochi comes from its shape: the copper mirrors or kagami used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi. The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the smaller one placed on top of the bigger one (representing the past year and the year to come). It is topped with a tangerine (this time featuring a "lucky" leaf); the tangerine is typically referred to as a daidai which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (with the repetition of the syllables supposedly pointing to the continuation of generations). The decoration is usually opened, cut, and eaten on January 11th, a practice known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き) or opening. People don't wait until the 11th to eat mochi though - it is a staple in various New Year dishes (known collectively as osechi-ryōri=おせち料理), especially ozōni, a soup containing vegetables and mochi commonly eaten on New Year's Day (pictured below). As the picture shows, mochi comes in square (otoko=man) and round (onna=woman) shapes and the ingredients and soup base itself vary dramatically by region.

Today some people still make mochi themselves in a process which requires the glutinous rice to be strenuously kneaded. Traditionally, this is done in a wooden or stone mortar (usu) with a heavy wooden mallet in a process known as mochitsuki which is often carried out as a community or neighbourhood event. Pounding the mochi two hundred or so times gives it a smooth, shiny and whiter appearance, though today this task it increasingly done in a machine like a bread-maker. However it is prepared, the mochi is quite delicious when cooked: the pictures below show rectangular slices of mochi being ❶ fried on a hot plate ❷ until both sides are brown, ❸ soaked in soy sauce, and ❹ wrapped in seaweed ready to be eaten. This way of eating wrapped in seaweed is called isobe-mochi (or isobe-yaki), with isobe meaning seashore or beach. Be careful though - every year in Japan a number of elderly people die due to asphyxiation after getting mochi stuck in their throat...