Saturday, February 6, 2010

Coming of Age Day

My book group chose Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living int he East Teaches Us About the West for our January selection. This is a nonfiction, light sociological book by T.R. Reid, an American journalist who lived in Tokyo about 12 years ago. While some of Reid's work is now dated, there were so many interesting anecdotes about living in Japan and the struggles that westerners have understanding eastern cultures, that I am willing to forgive the dated-ness.

One point that Reid made time and again was that eastern societies have government sponsored public ceremonies and rituals that reinforce social mores. Coincidentally, one of these public rituals happened in January, which was a really interesting way for me to witness the. On January 11, Japan celebrated Coming of Age Day. This is a public holiday when all the young people who will turn 20 years old that year are honored and celebrated. What a contrast to the United States, where the only thing that happens when you turn 18 is (if you are male) you receive your Selective Service card, or when you turn 21 and are allowed to drink alcohol.Add Image

On Coming of Age Day, each city or town government has a ceremony. The young people turning 20 are invited to their local government office or hall for this occasion. The young women dress in kimono, and the young men also dress traditionally or in basic suits. In my city, Shibuya, they arrive early at the hall to catch up with friends and pose for photos. Some of the new adults have not seen each other since high school, so there is a reunion atmosphere.

I can't emphasize enough that this is important to them. Some of the girls get up very early for hairdresser appointments and rent kimono outfits that can cost over $1000 for the day.

After socializing, the young people go into the hall where the local officials congratulate them on their adult status and encourage them to be responsible society members. At age 20, they can drink, smoke, and vote, and they are reminded of both their adult privileges and duties to their neighbors. They are also handed goody bags with lots of information reflecting their new status as adults - taxes and insurance.

My friend Denise and I went to the Shibuya CC Lemon Hall to see all the festivities. It was amazing, beautiful, a little weird, and I am so glad I saw it. Denise and I were in awe of the incredible kimonos and gorgeous hair ornaments. The women were proud and happy, hugging friends and taking photos. The young men were a bit more reserved, but also obviously proud. I think the only thing I was really surprised about was how few parents were there. A Japanese friend explained to me that only the 20-yr olds are invited - especially in the bigger cities - and that families might have a party for them later on.

I think that western cultures have done their values/ideals a disservice by not sanctioning them publicly, and delegating all "values" education to the churches and volunteer groups like the Girl and Boy Scouts. Whether or not the Japanese young adults agree with their cultural rules and mores, they definitely know that their society expects them to be responsible society members with the privileges that come with that responsibility.

Here's a short video clip from the day. More on the Stormtrooper later.

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