Japan’s Coming of Age Day

Picture credit: Dick Thomas Johnson

Chris Game

A sentence or so of explanation. This blog was going to be an evaluation of the Government’s stuttering, end-of-year progress on levelling up.  However, I’d barely started it when I realised that Japan’s Coming of Age Day – Monday 9th to be precise – had crept up on me and was already being celebrated by Japanese municipalities while I’d been looking the other way. It’s a far more inspiring topic, deserves to be better known about than it is here in the UK, and, with this being a particularly significant year, I’d resolved to write something about it. Hence the dramatic handbrake turn and the absence of further mention of levelling up … at least the concept of which will still be with us in the months to come.

As a nation, the UK’s recognition of Coming of Age – a young person’s transition from child to adult – is staggered, complicated and, perhaps consequently, downplayed. In this we are not alone, although our ‘celebration’ of it is at the crappier end of any world scale. Nor is it primarily what this blog’s about, but here are a few signpost reminders, mostly applying UK-wide, but some England-specific.

Age 10 – full criminal responsibility; Age 12 – 12A category films without an adult; sign your own passport; Age 14 – part-time employment OK, but ‘light work’ only; seat belt-wearing your responsibility; Age 16 – since 2008, the UK-wide “age of (sexual) consent”; the term itself rarely features in statutes, but it covers pretty well anything, with anyone, so long as partner(s) too are 16+ and do indeed consent. You can also buy aerosol paint, non-alcoholic drinks and liqueur chocs, join the armed forces – with parental/guardian consent – change your name and leave home without consent.

Age 17 – donate blood, drive cars, small goods vehicles and tractors. Age 18 – the biggie: you’ve officially “come of age” and are now an adult, as opposed to, legally, an ‘infant’. It’s THE ‘Age of Majority’ since the 1969 Family Law Reform Act reduced it from 21. You can do or have virtually the lot, from alcohol and the armed forces to tattoos, weapons and gender change – including, of course, VOTING, thanks to the remarkably pioneering 1969 Representation of the People Act, and, since the 2006 Electoral Administration Act, actually standing for and becoming an MP, mayor or councillor.

The two key concepts, as emphasised, are the Age of Consent and the Coming of Age, both of which have changed within my adult lifetime and also vary considerably from country to country, even across Europe. Ireland’s age of consent, for instance, is 17, Turkey’s 18, and Italy’s 14, or 13 if your partner is under 18.  Japan’s – remarkably, although it’s not what this blog is primarily about – remains, at least for the present, at 13, as it has done since 1907, when women’s life expectancy was 44 and legal marriageable ages were 17 for men, 15 for women. These latter ages, however, were raised in 1947 to 18 and 16, again in 2022 to 18 for both, and it seems likely the age of consent will soon be raised nationally to 16, rather than leaving it entirely to the interpretation of the 47 prefectures.

What has already changed in Japan, however, and what prompted this blog is coming of age, and consequently its celebratory Coming of Age Day. One of the many striking contrasts between Japan’s culture and ours has been their 7-year gap between Age of Consent (13) and Coming of Age (20), and our 2-year gap. It started to narrow in 2018, when Japan lowered the age of adulthood from 20 to 18, to take effect from April 2022 – which brings us to Japan’s exceptional Coming of Age traditions and ceremonies, dating back apparently to the 700s.

Exceptional to us, that is. Numerous cultures have broadly equivalent but culturally particular Coming of Age celebrations – Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, American legal-car-driving parties, and of course Ethiopian Naked Bull Jumping (it’s a real thing, check it out!). The Japanese seem at least fairly unusual, though – and the reason for my bothering you with it – in the formal involvement of their local municipalities/prefectures in these ceremonies and celebrations. 

On what since WWII has been a national holiday, each municipality will organise and issue formal invitations to a Coming of Age Day ceremony/celebration in the city hall, community centre, or other suitably sized venue for the local young women, wearing very formal (montsuki) kimono, and young men, mostly nowadays in formal western suit and tie. This will be followed typically by a family visit to a local shrine and prayers for success in the young people’s new adulthood – see the fine selection of pix in the Guardian’s World Gallery, with plenty of mentions of this year’s Tokyo Temple and Yokohama Arena ‘ceremonies’, though not really of the respective municipalities’ core roles in their organisation.

Back in 2000 that organisation was made slightly more straightforward by the change in the January dates of Coming of Age Days – from the 15th, whichever day of the week it was, to the second Monday, whatever the date. The reason, possibly guessable by anyone familiar with the more charming (or perhaps imitative) aspects of Japanese culture, is Happī Mandē Seido – the ‘Happy Monday System’, aimed explicitly to place as many public holidays as possible on Mondays, in order to give those five-day-week working citizens more three-day weekends – modelled on the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act in the US. So now the Japanese not only have a ‘Respect for the Aged Day’, but make it easier for the forgetful elderly by having it always on the third Monday in September – this year the 18th.  

This year, however, that slight Coming of Age simplification has been massively outweighed by the complication of the afore-mentioned lowering of the age of adulthood from 20 to 18 coming into effect – trickier enough even at first sight, but even more so in practice. It’s not just the considerably bigger numbers; even more so the fact that the newly qualified 18- and 19-year olds are in the middle of tedious stuff like taking university admission exams, applying for jobs – oh yes, and emerging from a nationwide Covid lockdown.

My impression, and that’s all it is, is that municipalities have done their own thing: some retaining the traditional ceremonials for the 20-year olds, others having three, with separate ones for the 19- and 18-year olds later in the year. And, having comfortably exceeded 1,000 words, and just hoping that was a bit more fascinating than levelling up, I shall now close, Forrest Gump-style: That’s all I have to say about that!

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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