Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Two young women chat in the station in their kimono on adulthood day.

Each culture has its ages where milestones are reached. In the U.S., the major milestones are generally considered to be at 16, 18, and 21. These ages are important because they are significant legal milestones. At 16, you can drive. At 18, you can be drafted, vote, marry without parental consent, and be legally tried as an adult. At 21, you can drink alcohol. These ages do vary from state to state and have probably changed a bit since when I hit these ages, but they are largely the same in most places in the U.S.

These ages are also milestones from the viewpoint of how others perceive you. In my family, my mother loved to repeatedly say that there was absolutely no "dating" until age 16, and it still continues to be the age at which more conservative parents feel it's appropriate for their kids to start actively engaging in more formalized relationships with a significant other, though this is less and less the case as the age of the onset of puberty goes parenting notions become more liberal. Eighteen is the age at which you are expected to start taking financial responsibility for yourself and at 21, you should be comporting yourself as an adult to a great extent.

Age-based milestones are probably more diverse across cultures than many other artificially-assigned aspects. That is, while things like food and dress are directly related to the environment that a group of people live in, age-based notions are much more related to subjective concepts of maturity (though certainly not in all respects as the onset of puberty factors into all perceptions of adulthood). In Japan, there are milestone ages but there are fewer of them at younger ages and more of them at older ages compared to the U.S. The age at which one is considered an adult in Japan is 20 and all people who turned 20 in the previous year celebrated their coming of age on January 14 this year.

A young woman and man, both attired for adulthood day activities, chat on the train.

If you read any Japan blogs or news sites, you will have seen pictures relating to this and little snippets about what it all means. This particular holiday holds a good deal of interest for foreigners because it's the one day of the year when you see a large number of young, well-made-up women walking around in their finest kimono. It's a day when the "old" view of Japan as having a plethora of refined, fresh beauties in traditional dress mingles most vividly with the newer, more mundane version which tends only to appeal to the fetishistic appetites of gaijin when schoolgirl uniforms or cosplaying women come into view.

Young women walk the streets of Ikebukuro in their kimono, freezing their buns off on a chilly winter day with only a fur stole to comfort them.

For some Japanese women, this day is a rather complex one with a relatively unglamorous, but warm-hearted goal in mind. One of my students turned 20 in the previous year and she filled me in on the "behind the scenes" situation for a young woman approaching this day. Several months before the actual holiday, her parents took her to a hotel where her hair and make up were professionally done and a series of photographs of her in her adulthood day kimono were taken by a professional photographer.

The whole experience was tiring and unpleasant for her as it took a long time to prepare her and wrap her up in her kimono. The make-up was also quite itchy and the woman who prepped was a bit terse and pushy. In the end, she wasn't very happy with the pictures and believed that she never quite managed to pose as the photographer asked. She felt her chin looked bulgy when her head was tilted down and the photographer kept asking her to hold it differently, but she never quite managed. I can't say that I agreed with her regarding the photographs. I thought she looked beautiful.

A group of young men huddle in the station before heading off to their adulthood day destination.

The strange thing about this holiday is that women go through a lot to dress in traditional clothes and do their hair and make-up just right, but men just put on a suit. I'm not sure why men aren't running off to a professional and getting an artificial topknot glued to heir heads and forced to wear traditional men's formal kimono, but there appears to be no such expectation for them. Men get a much more comfortable and inexpensive day when they turn 20.

For the young adults celebrating this day, the biggest draw, and for some the only draw, is that it allows them to have a reunion with all of their friends from elementary school to high school. It's the one time when there's a good chance that people they haven't seen for a decade will come together and they can all catch up on each others lives. The more grandiose aspects like being allowed to vote and being considered a "member of society" aren't looming in the front of their minds. However, I'm guessing that having a day of reunion probably runs neck and neck in importance with being allowed to being legally allowed to drink in the minds of a good many 20-year-olds.


A Joe said...

I've always thought that I'm still 20 even though I'm way beyond that.

Sometimes time just stops and it goes in a flash.

Clarissa said...

When we were in Japan on this day a couple of years ago, we did see some young men in hakama. More power to them! Somehow, though, I imagine it's still more comfortable than the young women's ordeals...

Shari said...

a joe: I've never felt 20, not even when I was 20, though I do agree that time seems to go in a flash! At least you still feel young at heart!

clarissa: I can safely say that I've never seen men in Hakama on adulthood day, though I have seen them dressed thusly on very rare occasions for other festivities. I'd love to see them all in traditional dress on that day, but it seems pretty unlikely.

Thanks to both of you for reading and commenting.

Lulu said...

I was lucky to see quite a few girls dressed in their finest yesterday as I ate lunch just near Nakano shiakusho! I love how the girls carry their things in their kimono sleeves...keitais, purses, make-up...they just chuck it all in!

I also saw a young guy with punked hair wearing hakama and hailing a taxi! His hair was orange, spiked up all on top shaved on the sides and he was in traditional Japanese clothing. Somehow I doubt you could see something similar in any country! Most guys do tend to wear suits. My bf said out of his group of male friends of about 20 people, only one wore hakama for their coming of age day!

ps: I had another friend on his graduation day wear hakama and a reggae style hat with attached long fake black hair....he wore it in all his graduation day photos and when he accepted his diploma?!?! It was hilarious to watch!

Mari said...

I also saw a few young men in hakama yesterday. It was nice to see all of them getting on my train. I took a few pictures but almost all were blurry since I was taking clandestine photos. I was too shy to ask to take pictures with them...

While I'm sure your student felt a little uncomfortable with her picture, I'm sure she'll look back and think it wasn't so bad. All the pictures I've seen so far have very beautiful people in them.

tornados28 said...

The fir raps or collars seem to be a newer thing. My wife had her 20 year 8 years ago and she did not have a fur rap and I don't recall seeing other women with it either.

french panic said...

It is supremely UNFAIR that the guys just have to put on a suit -- if the women have to be kimonoed up, why not the men, too?

Very similar to the western wedding tradition of women spending hundreds or thousands on a dress they will never wear again ... and often the men rent their suits.

Thank you for putting me in your blogroll - it was a very pleasant surprise to discover that!

mike said...

I've seen quite a few brides, bridesmaids, grooms and groomsmen loathe to get all gussied up for their special day. I would imagine that there is a sector of the population that would enjoy such a thing, and some that would not.

It would be a sight to see young men and women in the traditional garb. I would think, however, that it might be something that is rote to them and they may see it a lot more that us gaijin would ... therefore it might not be as big of a deal to them. Though some of the ladies might be intimidated by their parents to do the traditional thing.

Shari said...

Thanks to all for reading and commenting! I really appreciate it!

Just a few quick comments to all:

These pictures were taken in both Koenji and Ikebukuro and no men in hakama showed up (more so is the pity), though it'd have been cool if they had.

frenchpanic: You're welcome!

a joe said...

well, you run a nice blog Shari. Keep it up. It's a great site for reading about and seeing Tokyo.

Chris (i-cjw.com) said...

I think you see hakama more in the countryside than in the city. When the son of a friend did his seijin-shiki last year, he and his friends all hired pure white hakama. Very handsome they looked too.

Shari said...

a joe: Thanks. I appreciate that.

Chris: I'd love to have seen the white hakama. The student who attended the ceremony last Monday just had a lesson with me and she said that she saw a smattering of fellows in traditional dress but that 99% were in suits.

BTW, I left a comment on your blog several days ago (essentially complimenting your incredibly gorgeous pictures again), but I think it never got through!