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Coming of Age Day brings out the best (and worst) in Japan

TOKYO, Japan — For the newly minted Japanese woman, the national Seijin No Hi celebration (a.k.a. Coming of Age Day) on the second Monday of January, is a chance to strut her stuff.

She makes a trip to the salon to curl and set her hair in an elaborate up-do; wraps herself in an expensive, silk furisode kimono; and makes a pilgrimage to the local shrine for good fortune, as turning 20 years old signifies all the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood.

Along the way, she is also liable to run the gauntlet of ogling older men who, for one day at least, have a free pass to snap as many photos of the young debutantes as they would like.

The men who show up in droves at Meiji Jingu might not be exactly what the young women have in mind, however. Some of the men are old enough to be not just the women’s fathers, but their ojisan, the Japanese word for grandfather.

These amateur photographers have expensive equipment of their own — Nikons and Cannons and Kodaks — along with their own set of rituals, which basically consist of surrounding the women as they enter the Meiji shrine sanctuary and stage-directing them as though they were in high-production photo shoots.

The women, looking partly uncertain but also partly flattered that strangers have taken interest in their outfits, oblige for a few minutes, standing ramrod straight and looking impassively at the photographers or smiling and flashing V signs with their fingers.

This ritual is best viewed at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu shrine, one of the most popular landmarks in the country which draws upwards of 3 million visitors on New Year’s Day and hundreds of thousands more on Seijin No Hi.

Japan may be the world’s fastest-aging country, with the highest percentage of senior citizens and an alarmingly low birth rate that is predicted to cause costly demographic problems in the coming decades. But for one day, the graying nation pauses to celebrate its youngest adults with a national holiday. The fete honors 20-year-olds who are now recognized as fully sovereign under the law, meaning they are allowed to drink, vote and marry without parental approval. There is even a special word for people who are 20: hatachi.

The holiday begins with a formal ceremony at city hall or the convention center, where the mayor or another dignitary offers serious words of advice for this emerging generation. Perhaps predictably, on this precipice of adulthood, the young people have been known to offer a final act of rebellion: Increasingly, the media have reported on incidents of rudeness by the honorees, who hoot and snicker at the guest speakers, anxious to get outside and take pictures with friends. Or flirt.

When I first saw the Seijin No Hi in Hiroshima in 2002, I was struck by the hundreds of young men and women who remained outside the convention center to chat with each other, and smoke cigarettes, while the speakers droned on inside.

After the ceremony, most of the honorees and their families visit ancient shrines to wish for good fortune. For the event, they dress up in big boy and big girl clothes; the young men generally don dark business suits, as they are mere accoutrements to the real stars of the day: the women.

Draped in their expensive furisode, which are specialized kimonos for young, unmarried women with brighter colors and long sheaths of fabric hanging from the arms, the women resemble peacocks in full plumage, shuffling in their sandals, called zori. In fact, the costumes are designed with bolder colors to announce the single woman’s availability to suitors.

Despite the decreasing number of 20-year-olds in a country with a plummeting birthrate — or perhaps because of it — the celebrations have grown more elaborate over time. And at least one prefecture has completely given in to the fantasy that this one day holds over the public imagination. Instead of holding their ceremony in stuffy city hall, officials in Chiba moved the party to a place where costumes and role-playing are the entire point: Tokyo Disney Land.

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