National / Social Issues

Coming of age? Japan's shifting definition of adulthood

With the Justice Ministry weighing whether or not to lower the age of majority, we examine a few key issues surrounding the debate.

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Graduating from high school represents a significant milestone in any young person’s life, a landmark that certainly wasn’t lost on the countless 18-year-olds milling around Shibuya Station on a recent March afternoon. Among them was 18-year-old Akane Endo, who was brimming with excitement at the prospect of starting a new life in April.

Akane Endo, 18, plans to study literature at a Tokyo university.
Akane Endo, 18, plans to study literature at a Tokyo university. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“My high school didn’t allow me to have a part-time job, but now that I’ve graduated, I’m looking forward to making money myself so that I’m at least able to pay for my own clothes or transportation,” says Endo, who plans to study literature at a Tokyo university.

Like Endo, 18-year-olds who have completed 12 years of education at elementary, middle and high schools nationwide will get their first taste of adulthood next month, when they make a transition to higher education or employment.

But, at least philosophically speaking, does graduating from high school make them an adult? It’s a question that’s a little difficult to answer.

Although graduating from high school around the age of 18 heralds the beginning of a new chapter in most people’s lives, the legal age of majority is still 20 in Japan. Only then are young people allowed to drink, smoke, gamble and apply for smartphone, credit card and loan contracts without consent from their parents.

However, the decision by the Diet in 2015 to lower the voting age to 18 reignited debate about the legal age of adulthood, and prompted the Justice Ministry to draft an amendment to lower the threshold of adulthood. If ratified, it would be the first such reform in more than a century.

While proponents of the bill hail such a shift as long overdue (arguing that the development could spur more active youth participation in society), opponents remain unconvinced. Japan, they argue, is so fundamentally devoid of a youth support system that encouraging independence at the age of 18 risks leaving them vulnerable.

Evolving definition

Japan’s current definition of adulthood dates back to 1898, when the country adopted a Civil Code that delayed the age of majority to 20 years old from early adolescence, as had previously been the presumption in many parts of the society.

The rationale behind why the country’s lawmakers settled on 20 remains something of a mystery. However, historians and legal experts generally agree that the late 19th-century government was probably emulating European countries, where the age of majority is said to have ranged from 21 to 25, as part of its drive to westernize Japan. The French law of that period, for instance, designated the threshold as 21. The age of 20 also corresponded to the timing at which Japanese men were conscripted into the army.

It is thought that Japan was somewhat conservative in setting the age of majority at 20 and not, say, 25 because of the relatively short life expectancy of Japanese people at the time, which a health ministry study shows averaged about 43 years old. People in such countries as Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom, on the other hand, were living on average until their late 40s and 50s at the time, according to a demographic yearbook compiled by the Statistical Office of the United Nations in 1948.

Prior to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), most Japanese boys and girls came of age upon hitting puberty, says historian Isao Tokoro, a professor emeritus at Kyoto Sangyo University. For boys, this happened around the time they turned 15, while girls hit puberty around 12, depending on the tradition of the local community they belonged to.

What determined their transition to adulthood was a rite of passage called genpuku, which essentially tested their ability to toil and behave like an adult.

Kyoto SangyoUniversity professor emeritus Isao Tokoro
Kyoto SangyoUniversity professor emeritus Isao Tokoro | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“If you were a boy from a farming village, for example, you were supposed to prove you could shoulder a straw bag of 60 kilograms of rice all by yourself or turn over a 1,000-square-meter rice field within a day, and adults in your community would watch you do it every step of the way,” Tokoro says. “A girl, meanwhile, would have to prove her sewing or weaving skills — producing, for example, about 10 meters’ worth of cloth a day.”

Children of samurai were not immune to this ritual either, Tokoro says, adding that they needed to demonstrate they could fire an arrow and draw a sword “elegantly” enough to become a full-fledged samurai.

Teens who came of age back then even changed their names under the tutelage of a godparent and joined a young adult fraternity called wakamono gumi — or, literally, youth groups — he says.

“That’s where boys in those days were taught by their seniors how to approach girls and have sex,” Tokoro says.

Tokoro laments how the genpuku ritual faded into obsolescence toward the middle of the 20th century and gave way to today’s annual Coming-of-Age holiday, which first came into being in 1948.

On the second Monday of January every year, local municipalities host a ceremony to celebrate new adults, often featuring speeches by mayors.

Since around 2000, however, the phrase areru seijinshiki (boisterous coming-of-age ceremony) has become a regular fixture in annual media coverage of what is traditionally supposed to be a solemn event, including TV footage of youngsters carousing and disrupting the proceedings.

Although such raucous behavior, which sometimes leads to arrests, is not typical of the majority of young people participating in the ceremony, Tokoro nonetheless says he finds no vestige of genpuku in the celebrations.

“The creation of such a holiday has made people think that all new adults have to do is attend the ceremony, which is basically just a gathering of sorts, and the notion that they have to demonstrate their adult-like skills or demeanor to come of age has become passe,” Tokoro says. “It’s a real shame.”

Twenty-six-year-old Tokyo-based real-estate proprietor Taiki Aoki agrees.

“I didn’t really feel like I became an adult by attending the ceremony,” he says. “I went to it so I could catch up with my old friends. It felt more like a reunion or something.”

Legislative steps

Post-modern Japan is inching toward lowering the age of majority from 20 to 18.

Efforts to do so have been brewing for almost a decade, set in motion by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first short-lived stint in power in 2007. Under Abe’s leadership, a ruling coalition-backed bill to establish procedures for a national referendum on amending the charter was enacted amid outcry from opposition parties in May 2007.

The bill stipulated that those aged 18 or older be given suffrage in the event of a referendum and, accordingly, called for a legal revision to lower the voting age for national elections from 20 to 18.

In response, a key decision-making panel under the Justice Ministry concluded in 2009 that it would be “appropriate” to lower the age of adulthood to 18 in tandem with a drop in the voting age.

In June 2015, the Diet passed a bill to lower the voting age in national elections, prompting the Justice Ministry to follow suit in revising the age of majority.

The ministry aims to submit its proposed amendment to the existing ordinary Diet session slated to wrap up in mid-June, Justice Ministry official Yuichiro Nakatsuji says. Recent media reports, however, suggest the submission of the revised bill may be postponed to prioritize passing legislation that cracks down on conspiracy.

Enter Haruhiko Tanaka, a Sophia University professor of citizenship education who has been pushing for the age of majority to be lowered to 18 for years.

Such reform, he says, would not only facilitate greater youth participation in society and bring Japan in line with other developed nations, but also resolve some legal discrepancies that have long affected 18-year-olds.

Contradicting a Civil Code provision that sets the age of majority at 20, statutes such as the Child Welfare Law and Labor Standards Law effectively recognize 18- and 19-year-olds as adults in terms of employment and thus pave the way for them to work, for example, as bar hostesses or public servants.

Sophia University professor Haruhiko Tanaka
Sophia University professor Haruhiko Tanaka | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“They’re serving alcohol even though they themselves are not allowed to drink because they’re technically not adults yet. Conversely, by holding positions as public servants they’re also getting involved in public power despite officially being underage,” Tanaka says. “It’s a very bizarre situation.”

Sweeping reform?

To rectify these discrepancies, Tanaka argues that any moves to lower the age of majority should be accompanied by similar age-related reform across the board, including lowering the minimum age for smoking and drinking as well as the age at which a teenager is no longer protected by the Juvenile Law.

The minimum age for smoking and drinking has always been a delicate topic in Japan, where many 18-year-olds experiment with tobacco and alcohol — albeit illegally — upon entering universities to enjoy a semblance of adulthood.

“Although first-year students steer clear of alcohol in the presence of their professors, it’s an open secret that they drink once they’re out of our sight,” Tanaka says. “I don’t think such double standards are healthy.”

If the government lowers the minimum age for drinking to 18, Tanaka says, high schools should be encouraged to educate its pupils about risks related to intoxication, which claims the life of a first-year student who has been forced to consume alcohol by fellow students almost every year.

Tanaka, however, cautions nonetheless that 18-year-olds should be required to wait until after graduation before they are allowed to start smoking or drinking, as the sight of them openly taking a puff on a cigarette on the premises of high schools, for example, would be “greatly confusing” for teachers there.

Another topic of public interest is what to do with the scope of the Juvenile Law, which gives lighter sentences to offenders aged up to 19 and offers them rehabilitation programs, based on the notion that children are by nature more amenable to change than adults.

In February, a Justice Ministry panel began discussing whether to exclude 18- and 19-year-olds from the law if the age of majority is lowered to 18. While opponents say disqualifying them from correctional programs guaranteed by the law will result in a spike in their recidivism, proponents argue that the prospect of stiffer penalties will serve as a deterrent against committing crime in the first place.

A Justice Ministry official who declined to be identified says even if 18- and 19-year-olds are deemed too old for the law’s protection as a result of the discussion, the panel will likely hammer out an alternative framework to keep them eligible for correctional measures similar to those currently provided by law.

Lingering immaturity

Tsukuba University professor Tamaki Saito
Tsukuba University professor Tamaki Saito | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Although the Justice Ministry is on the verge of proposing a legal revision to lower the age of majority, Tamaki Saito, a Tsukuba University professor specializing in adolescent psychiatry, takes a dim view of the move.

Saito, who was summoned to a hearing of the ministry’s 2008 legislative panel on the topic, says he waged an almost one-man battle against the move to recognize 18-year-olds as adults. In fact, Saito espouses the exact opposite of what has been proposed by the ministry, arguing that the age of majority in Japan should be raised to as high as 25.

“We can hardly expect 18-year-olds to have the same sense of responsibility as grown-ups, even if we lower the age of majority,” Saito says.

Few 18- or 19-year-olds, he says, seem ready to cut the apron strings after graduating high school, as evidenced by their tendency to continue living with their parents.

“Even if they do start living away from home, they usually end up being dependent on monthly allowances from their parents for a living,” Saito says.

Endo, the 18-year-old in Shibuya who is bound for college, says she will continue to live with her parents and, in all likelihood, rely on them for her college tuition fees.

Such a view is echoed by 18-year-old Masato Suzuki, who says he won’t feel as though he is an adult until he leaves home.

Masato Suzuki, 18, says he won
Masato Suzuki, 18, says he won’t feel as though he is an adult until he leaves home. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Suzuki says he plans to continue living with his parents in Kanagawa Prefecture after graduating from high school.

“I can’t imagine making any money (to cover my bills) because I have no practical skills at all. All I have is some textbook knowledge I crammed into my brain in preparation for university exams,” Suzuki says. “I’d be more prepared to call myself an adult at the age of 25 — if that kind of thing is in any way possible.”

Although not a phenomenon peculiar to Japan, cohabitation with one’s parents is emblematic of the nation’s Confucianism-oriented family norms, where adult children are allowed — or, in some cases, even encouraged — to live with their parents, who, in return, expect a lifetime of filial dedication from them, Saito says.

As such, Japan has long had an internationally high rate of youths living with their parents. At the time of the national census in 2010, the percentage of people aged 25 to 34 who lived at their parents’ homes stood at 39.8 percent.

By comparison, the corresponding figures in 2014 were 15.5 percent in the United Kingdom, 11.1 percent in France and 9.5 percent in the Netherlands, according to Eurostat, although countries such as Italy and Spain logged much higher rates, at 48.4 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively.

Feeble youth support

The traditional family model, however, is now crumbling in Japan, Saito says, with an increasing number of parents seemingly unwilling or unable to feed their adult children due to financial insecurity linked to decades of economic stagnation.

“Lowering the age of majority to 18 could give some parents a perfect excuse to kick their children out,” Saito says.

Saitama-based social worker Takanori Fujita, author of “Hinkon Sedai: Shakai no Kangoku ni Tojikomerareta Wakamonotachi” (“Generation Poverty: Youths Imprisoned by Society”), agrees, painting an even grimmer picture of modern Japanese society.

Fujita says a number of depressed young adults have sought his counseling services after being asked to move out of their parents’ homes. In many cases, the parents were stuck in part-time jobs or were exhausted from caring for bedridden family members.

“In such cases, the parents are barely surviving themselves,” Fujita says. “How can they take care of others?”

Young people who are asked to move out of their parents’ homes have little in the way of a support system to fall back on.

Saito says Japan is one of the few developed countries without any central ministry or agency specifically tasked with devising youth policy, with the Cabinet Office and other ministries charged with such tasks on an ad hoc basis and often riven by sectionalism.

The nation is also renowned for having long denied young singles access to low-rent public housing.

The amended Public Housing Law now technically allows young people access to such facilities. However, Fujita says that due to an overwhelming shortage of these facilities, many municipalities continue to follow outdated policies and prioritize renting to individuals they believe may be more in need — the elderly, people with disabilities and single-parent families.

“The young,” he says, “are therefore effectively disqualified.”

Saito believes such issues could create a new — and more serious — type of problem.

“With Japan lacking policies to support young people, I’d go as far as to say that 18-year-olds who are kicked out of their parents’ homes will have nowhere to go but the streets, which could lead to a rise in youth homelessness,” he says.

People celebrate turning 20 on Coming-of-Age Day in January 2016.
People celebrate turning 20 on Coming-of-Age Day in January 2016. | BLOOMBERG

For now, however, the fear of being thrown out of their parents’ house is not a sentiment shared by the majority of Japanese teens. The young adults in Shibuya who were interviewed for this article sounded by and large blissfully optimistic that they are able to enjoy being “children” just a bit longer.

“My parents are generous enough to lend me some money to help me get a driver’s license or go on trips,” says Kazuma Iwasaki, a 19-year-old university student who is studying education. “They tell me I can pay them back whenever I get a job in future, and that I should just try to enjoy my time in college.”