AP NEWS

Japanese “Coming-of-Age” ceremony honors students turning 20

January 13, 2019

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Getting into a kimono was not the issue for University of Pittsburgh senior Oliver Jia. He’s worn traditional dress from Japan in the past.

Nor was the Japanese major from Mt. Lebanon likely to be intimidated by any differences in culture, having spent 15 months in Japan as an undergraduate with plans to return for graduate school.

But the speech he was to deliver Friday night on Pitt’s campus was another matter. The young man conversationally fluent in Japanese would see those skills tested by his first formal address in that language. Many in the University Club audience would know instantly if his cadence was off or his usage incorrect.

That’s because the event, “Seijin Shiki,” is a Japanese “Coming-of-Age” ceremony, honoring students turning 20, the start of adulthood in that country. Pitt hosted the 7 p.m. ceremony for students visiting from Japan and unable to celebrate back home, and for Pitt students intent on bolstering their Japanese studies by experiencing one of that country’s rites of passage.

“Five to seven minutes,” said Jia, explaining his speaking assignment and his planned message. “I’m going to talk about becoming an adult, about bravery and courage to do new things, of trying new things and new ideas and new cultures.”

Just as that message resonated with him, it struck home for some two dozen students from Yasuda Women’s University in Hiroshima who have been at Pitt for five months improving their English skills. They accounted for most of the 34 participants and will soon be heading back to Japan.

One of them, Mai Takamoto, 20, a second-year Yasuda student, delivered a speech in English, her second language. She talked about coming to Pittsburgh, struggling to meet people and the organizations she joined as a result.

“All of those activities were part of me growing up, becoming more independent,” said the young woman who hopes to be a social worker for children, perhaps in the United States.

She, like Jia, was roundly applauded for her remarks and for stepping outside the comfort of what they know. In part, that was the point of the event, which drew more than 200 people.

“We are here to build bridges between cultures,” said Joseph Alter, director of the Asian Studies Center, which co-hosted the ceremony with the English Language Institute.

Coming of Age Day in Japan is a national holiday, traditionally the second Monday of January. It celebrates passage into adulthood and the responsibilities, privileges and vices that come with it.

Some activities including the right to vote have dropped to 18, event organizers said. But for now, 20 remains the threshold, the age at which they take on the mantle of adulthood, and — yes — are able to gamble and consume alcohol legally in their country.

Though alcohol was not part of Pitt’s ceremony, gifts were, specifically chopsticks bearing Pitt’s logo, said Lynn Kawaratani, an assistant director with Pitt’s Asian Studies Center. A cherry blossom tree was planted in the students’ honor in North Park.

The event may have no precise equivalent in American culture, but there are similarities, said Rob Mucklo, associate director of the English Language Institute.

“It’s got the pomp and circumstance of a prom, but the tradition and coming-of-age elements of a debutante ball, or a Sweet 16 party or a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah,” he said.

During the afternoon, the students arrived for appointments during which volunteers, including members of Pittsburgh’s Japanese community, helped them into their kimonos, a process in which they are wrapped in multiple silk layers secured with a sash, or Obi.

Those colorful garments were loaned to the students.

Women did their hair. The participants, once into Japanese garb, waited inside the club to preserve their appearance until the ceremony began.

In general, those participating turned 20 between last April and this April. Mr. Jia, though he already is 21, got to experience the event as a speaker.

There was a procession and a performance by members of Pittsburgh Taiko, whose barrel-shaped drums filled the room with sound as the new adults filed into the room in a procession

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Feyisola Alabi, a representative of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, gave remarks, as did Sally Wiggin, a retired TV broadcaster who has studied Japanese and Chinese at Pitt.

Shortly after watching Pitt sophomore Emily Farmer, 20, of Easton, Pennsylvania, put on a kimomo for the firsrt time, retired Japanese instructor Sono Takano Hayes beamed as she talked about the joy of volunteering for the event.

“It makes me feel very, very happy. Why? They are very much involved. They are learning so much about Japan. I’m so proud to see them.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com