“Where should I go?” asked Alice. “That depends on where you want to end up.” Responded The Cheshire Cat. ~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
“To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” ~Chinese Proverb
During our adventures this past week up in the north of Okinawa, I came across three very distinct products accessible to young people and even children that one would never find in the United States: beer vending machines, cigarette vending machines, and sexually explicit comic books. And these things got me to thinking about coming of age, and how different cultures treat their younger citizens-to-be, and when and how they confer upon them the age of majority.
Many years ago vending machines that sold beer were more prominent and popular in Japan being colocated with the less tantalizing drink vending, but this more adult “option” starting in June 2000 has become much scarcer over concerns of underage drinking. The last bastion of such easily accessible silly drink seems to be in Japanese hotel chains, usually found just adjacent to other vending on guest floors, and with no other safeguards against minors other than being able to have and count cash. Cha-CHING says the 6-year old! Odd that the US Navy would remove their beer machines from the bachelors’ quarters well before the Japanese would think of doing the same in their billeting. Seems to imply that the Navy may think of its sailors as, well, children??
While the beer vending machine’s popularity is fading, cigarette machines are still going strong here in Japan, but are becoming more sophisticated, sometimes requiring a special card as proof of majority age to help prevent minors from buying cigarettes. These machines can still be found in various public spaces and along the street, while smoking in Japan is still allowed in many restaurants and almost all bars. This is something that Jody and I find very hard to accept and get used to, and, in fact, it sometimes dictates where and when we frequent certain establishments.
The graphic comic books, more commonly called manga, are most generally designed for male readers and are sub-divided according to the age of intended readership: boys up to 18 years old (shōnen manga) and young men 18- to 30-years old (seinen manga). Further, the Japanese use different kanji for two closely allied meanings of “seinen”—青年 for “youth, young man,” and 成年 for “adult, majority”—the second referring to sexually overt and totally graphic manga aimed at grown men and also called seijin (“adult” 成人) manga. Shōnen, seinen, and seijin manga, however, share many features in common, and all often have very strong sexual themes, regardless of the age bracket. I cannot find anywhere stated or stipulated that there is a minimum age for purchases these comics. It is not uncommon to see a fully sexually graphic comic being read on the bus or subway. Because manga are not photos, they are not considered pornography.
So, it seems there may be a higher level of trust placed on both Japanese children and the society it takes to raise such youngsters where they can mature into the future stewards of the nation. Stated another way, I think it’s also kinda like this: hiding and making booze, smokes, and porn taboo makes most youngsters want to experience them that much more. Hell I did – and did. When such vices are not so mysterious, (poorly) hidden and (falsely) revered, they take on a much less important aspect of coming of age. And this leads directly to a marked tradition in Japan celebrating such achievement, the Coming of Age Day.
Coming of Age Day (成人の日 Seijin no Hi) is a Japanese holiday held annually on the second Monday of January to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached 20 years old, the age of majority. Festivities include coming of age ceremonies (成人式 seijin-shiki) held at local and prefectural offices, as well as after-parties among family and friends. Coming of age ceremonies have been celebrated in Japan since at least the early 8th century (CE), when young princes often donned new robes and hairstyles to mark passage into adulthood. During the Edo Period of Japan (1603-1868) boys marked their passage to adulthood at age 15 by cutting their hair and carrying swords. Girls became adults at age 13, which as far as I can tell, is still the age of consent for sex. The official age of adulthood for both genders was set at 20 in 1876, while the holiday was first established in 1948 as January 15, but was realigned in 2000 as a result of the “Happy Monday System” (you have to love the Japanese!) to the second Monday in January.
Turning 20 in Japan is similar to becoming 18 in the United States for some things and 21 for others. 20-year-olds in Japan can legally vote, drink, smoke, and enter into contracts, such as marriage, without parental permission. Oddly enough, however, one needs only to be 18 to get a driver’s license (considered a “profession” here with analogous legal ramifications) and to buy pornography (but 20 to be in it in an odd twist). And, in an interesting tangent, gun ownership is almost nil in Japan and tightly controlled, severely limited, and only for those 25 and older; as a result, Tokyo is the safest major democratic city in the world, with a handgun murder rate at least 200 times less than that of a typical American city (there is a lesson there as well). However, those coming of age also become subject to the laws and social responsibilities that bind adults. Social norms and adult responsibilities are much more widely held and respected in Japan, where shame and embarrassment still matter to most.
Coming of age ceremonies (成人式 Seijin-shiki) marks attainment of the age of majority, which reflects both expanded rights but also increased responsibilities expected of new adults in the Japanese culture. The ceremonies are generally held in the morning at local city offices throughout Japan, where government officials give speeches in what must be relatively boring affairs, and small presents are handed out to the newly recognized adults, numbering last year in excess of 1.2 million (the numbers have been steadily declining in the last decade). It is after the ceremony when the real fun begins, when young adults often celebrate in groups by going to parties or going out drinking at izakaya pubs, simply enjoying some of the freedoms that adulthood brings.
Many women celebrate this day by renting or borrowing furisode, a style of kimono with long sleeves that hang down, and zōri sandals. Since most are unable to put on a kimono by themselves due to the intricacies involved and relative unfamiliarity, so most choose to visit a beauty salon to dress and for hair and makeup. Their look is completed by loud and often gaudy accessories, often purchased at great expense. Men sometimes also wear traditional dress consisting most often of pantaloons and haori long jackets seen in samurai dramas, but many more contemporary men enjoy a wider variety of wear such as formal Western clothes like suit and tie. For young women, total expenses start at over $1,000!
I think back to my own childhood and realize that I grew up exposed to these “vices,” and was more normalized because of such exposure. My father even went so far as to confront his church (staunch Southern Baptist) when confronted about his girlie magazines and work cocktail parties he was known to throw. Yes, there were magazines in our household growing up; heck, I had an older brother as well! Yes, there was a wet bar in our home, unsecured and easily accessible. And yes, both my parents smoked, and we had any access we wished to cigarettes. Now, I’m not expounding that Moms and Dads everywhere drink and smoke with their kids and leave porn in their bathrooms and on coffee tables, but the opposite extreme is no less harmful. If children are raised correctly, if there are the proper expectations place on them, combined with the respect they deserve as really the young adults which they are, they will successfully separate the wheat from the chaff, and be better off for it. If we all stop and really think about coming of age, what would you really rather have: the American fascination with guns, rampant violence in all our media, and a runaway culture of fear, or perhaps, some boobs and beer machines sprinkled here and there. It really should make you wonder.
- Japanese Vice (gaijintokyoproject.wordpress.com)
- 10 things Japan gets awesomely right (en.rocketnews24.com)