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What if Cinderella dressed up in her finery only to discover, last minute, that the ball was canceled? This year, thousands of real-life Cinderellas are hoping COVID-19 won’t dash their dreams of morphing into fairy tale princesses for their seijinshiki (coming-of-age ceremony) on Jan. 11. My daughter is among them.

In a country where formal ceremonies and shared experiences are an important part of youth culture, canceling feels unthinkable. “My friends and I have looked forward to our seijinshiki for years. I can’t imagine not doing it,” says Arisa Takamori, a second-year university student from Chiba Prefecture.

Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) celebrates those who have turned 20, becoming adults in the eyes of the Japanese law, and is marked by an annual public holiday on the second Monday in January. This year’s Coming of Age Day covers anyone reaching this milestone birthday between April 2, 2020 and April 1, 2021.

Young people typically return to their hometown for the occasion, providing a welcome opportunity to catch up with old school friends. After attending a formal ceremony organized by the local town or city office, the young folks generally gather again in the evening for parties at restaurants and bars. However, in light of the rising rate of COVID-19 infections across Japan, 2021’s Coming of Age Day won’t follow the usual pattern.

While roughly equal numbers of young men and women attend the ceremonies, media images mostly focus on kimono-clad beauties. Seijinshiki is the biggest money-spinner for the rental kimono business, and firms woo their potential customers well in advance, sending catalogs when the youths in question are still in high school.

Although some young men dress up in hakama (wide-legged pants worn over a kimono) for the occasion, the majority, like my son, simply don a suit (his total preparation time was probably 30 minutes). In contrast, when my older daughter’s turn came, she had to be out the door by 7:30 a.m. to get coiffured at the beauty shop and then helped into a colorful furisode, the long-sleeved kimono worn by unmarried women.

Many women dress up twice — for the seijinshiki itself, and for maedori (an advance photo session). Maedori can take place anytime in the year before the actual seijinshiki, and rental companies usually offer the photo session as part of the package.

Furisode: The author’s daughter at her maedori, an advanced photo session often offered as part of the kimono rental package. | COURTESY OF LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA
Furisode: The author’s daughter at her maedori, an advanced photo session often offered as part of the kimono rental package. | COURTESY OF LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA

In view of the current uncertainty with COVID-19, some kimono rental companies have been offering a flexible approach. Wedding Box is a nationwide chain that offers kimono rentals for Coming of Age under its Furisode Mode brand. For customers whose formal ceremony is canceled by their municipality, Furisode Mode offers a 50% refund if maedori photos have been completed, and a 100% refund if the kimono has not yet been worn. And those reluctant to attend their ceremony due to fears of infection have the option to hang on to their kimono until Dec. 31, 2021, with the view to finding another opportunity to wear it.

“The kimono rental business operates on a strictly defined schedule, but we are trying to take various needs into account for 2021,” says Hirooki Wada, the company’s president.

Smaller firms, however, might struggle to match this guarantee. With declining numbers of new adults year by year, competition in the kimono rental business is becoming fiercer. In January 2018, hundreds of young women had their dreams shattered when Harenohi, a Yokohama-based firm, went bankrupt. Customers arriving at some of the company’s locations on Coming of Age Day were distraught to find no kimono and no staff to help them dress.

“In 2018, we told our customers to bring along friends who had been left in the lurch by Harenohi, so they could choose a kimono from what was still available. In this way, we did help out a few girls affected by the situation,” Wada explains. “We’ll make the same offer this year, in case anyone is caught short due to the pandemic.”

When Japan’s COVID-19 cases first started rising in late February 2020, the government abruptly ordered schools to close early for spring break, causing some graduation ceremonies to be canceled. However, nearly a year on, COVID-19 infection numbers have reached record highs and Seijin no Hi ceremonies are also falling victim to the virus.

Yokohama made the decision to go entirely online for its 2021 ceremony back in the summer. When the news was announced on July 7 following a surge in infections connected to patrons at hostess clubs in Tokyo, young adults took to social media to express their disappointment.

One widely shared post on Twitter was from a 19-year-old woman: “If (adults) could have shown a little more restraint, we could have had our coming-of-age ceremony without the spread of infection. Why can’t adults have that kind of self-control?”

It’s an ongoing frustration, particularly as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has ignored his own advice and attended year-end gatherings, and pubs and clubs around Tokyo remain open for business as usual.

Meanwhile, the city of Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture, which has no confirmed cases of infection to date, will send PCR testing kits to all new adults so they can test themselves at home in advance. The city will cover the roughly ¥10,000 cost of each kit.

In November, our local city office confirmed that January’s celebrations would go ahead, with suitable measures in place to reduce the risk of infection, unless authorities called for an outright ban.

However, the city office has had a complete turnaround and, along with some other Kanto municipalities, abruptly canceled the ceremony just before Christmas. On the other hand, even though Kansai has declared its own state of emergency, Coming of Age Day ceremonies are among the events that leaders there say may go ahead with caution.

With no ceremony to attend, my daughter and her former classmates have been weighing their options. Having already done the maedori portraits, some parents have decided to cut their losses and return the rented kimono early. Others, like us, will still have our kids dress up and celebrate privately with just family or small groups of friends. Perhaps Japan’s latest crop of new adults can still show their elders a thing or two about social responsibility.

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