Shinto: Celebrate coming of age after Seijin no Hi

SATURDAY, JANUARY 15 (observed Monday, Jan. 10):
Aging in America is a huge challenge—especially with Baby Boomers pouring across the age-65 line into senior citizenship these days—but aging in Japan is viewed with great honor. Many rites of passage through life are marked with pride.

This weekend, “new” adults in Japan will be celebrating their first weekend adult privileges. In Japan, anyone who turned 20 (or will soon) took part in the Shinto Seijin no Hi, or Coming of Age Day, on Monday. Whether the 20-year-olds will be spending this, their first weekend “of age,” pondering the right to vote, purchasing alcohol or mulling over their new self-reliance (more ideas on celebrating are at ehow), all are now recognized as adult members of society. Although today, Jan. 15, is the traditional Seijin no Hi—and this was the date for more than 50 years—the Japanese government moved the holiday to the second Monday in Japan in 2000, as part of the Happy Monday System.

It’s recorded that coming of age ceremonies have been a part of Shinto and Japanese life since 714 AD, when a young prince changed his appearance to display his passage into adulthood. (Wikipedia has details.) Today’s Coming of Age ceremonies share similarities with the original rites, as young women today often wear a formal furisode kimono—the most formal outfit many will wear until their wedding day—and styled hair. Following the ceremonies, many new adults visit a shrine to give thanks.

Not all traditions of Seijin no Hi have remained, however; in recent years, young men have worn formal Western clothing, and young adults often attend parties following the ceremonies that have an abundance of alcohol and tobacco. (Hotel owners even advise young adults to book early, as the “carnival atmosphere” often leaves no vacancies! Check out more at Tokyotopia.)

Historically, Seijin no Hi was an essential part of Shinto practice, but Japan has been seeing a rapid drop in the number of attendees in recent years. While some young adults express a fear of being classified as an adult, the population in Japan is dropping in numbers, too: Japan’s birthrate is continuing to fall, and numbers will soon reach historic lows.

Shinto, Buddhist: New Year, 7-Herb Soup (& a cute baby)

SATURDAY, JANUARY 1: Japanese ring in the new year today with old and new customs in the Shinto tradition. Shinto is listed among world religions, but today’s Shinto wasn’t founded or codified in the same way as many other world religions popular in the West. Shinto draws on ancient wisdom gathered from Japanese oral tradition, folklore, indigenous customs and ideas that migrated across Asia. It’s a living religious tradition that continues to be practiced by many Japanese around the world.

Meanwhile, in the rich diversity of Asian cultures, Buddhists today are ringing temple bells 108 times—a number that’s sacred in many Eastern traditions. For Buddhists, the number specifically recalls 108 human sins or temptations to avoid. Buddhists want to be mindful of these 108 worldly desires today in the hope that they might rid themselves and others of these desires for the New Year.

Followers of Shintos like to visit a temple as soon as the New Year arrives—often not even waiting until sunrise. It’s a time for traditional prayers and other devotions. (Read more at the National Association of Japan-America Societies.)

Prior to 1873, Japan followed the Chinese lunar calendar and honored a different New Year’s Day; after the Meiji Restoration, Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar. The Japanese have long greeted days before, during and after the New Year with traditions—and time-consuming tasks. Since the Japanese view years as spiritually separate, the last days of a year are spent cleaning a house of the “dirt” of the old year, completing business and preparing abundant amounts of food. (Japan-Guide has more.)

No one works on New Year’s Day or the couple of days following, so the prepared food is consumed in joy with family and friends. Boiled seasweed, fish cakes, sweetened soybeans, beaten rice cakes and sushi are all popular dishes for New Year’s celebrations, and many contain special spiritual significance. (Wikipedia has details.)

Nanakusa Gayu: Japanese Seven Herbs of Spring Rice Soup
(and that cute baby)

The Japanese eat so well during New Year’s festivities that they even prepare a seven-herb rice soup for Jan. 7 to help heal their stomachs from the previous indulgences! You can find articles all over the Internet on this custom: Many are written by Japanese writers for a Japanese audience; some are written for non-Japanese but tend to explain the customs in terms of the writer’s own personal experience. For example, across the Web, you can find an array of writers describing the “7 herbs” with slight personal variances. (Wikipedia offers its take on the Seven Herbs Festival, which includes a note that says people have long felt comfortable making adapatations.)

This really is a wonderful and tasty spiritual custom and, if you’re a creative cook, you might want to whip up something on a similar culinary theme. Healthy, warm, herbed rice to soothe the stomach in early January isn’t a bad idea in any contry or culture, right?

Our recommendation is to enjoy the Blue Lotus blog by Amy Kakazawa, who moved to Japan in 1996 and maintains a delightfully cross-cultural blog about the Japanese culture she has come to love. Here is Amy’s 2005 post on Nanakusa Gayu, complete with photos and a recipe. Then, here’s an update on Nanakusa Gayu she posted two years later with a great photo of the customary, wicker herb planters that are supposed to grow the various plants at home.

And that cute baby? Before you leave Amy’s site, you’ve got to see her photos preparing holiday greetings with her baby. They’re sure to make you smile! Then, here’s the finished product, a special Happy New Year’s from Japan by Amy and baby.

Shinto: It’s Thanksgiving today; it’s Niinamesai!

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 23: Thanksgiving comes today for followers of the Japanese Shinto religion—Nov. 23 is Niinamesai, literally “Celebrations of the First Taste” and part of a series of Asian harvest rites. Officially, today is the day the emperor makes the season’s first offering of rice crop to the deities. (Get more from the Shinto Online Network Association.) Today’s ritual is one of the most important for the emperor and is the most important in the Shinto religion, since the emperor’s gesture displays gratitude for a good crop on behalf of the entire population. (Details are at the Encyclopedia of Shinto.)

Even in 21st-century Japan, the Niinamesai ritual remains important. Today is also known as Labor Thanksgiving Day and is celebrated nationally; the Meiji Jingu Shrine, located in the bustling city of Tokyo, is a common place to witness Niinamesai traditions. (The Miami Herald also featured an article on Niinamesai celebrations in a Japanese garden.)

Shinto: Celebrate children on Shichi-Go-San

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 14: America has Mother’s Day and Father’s Day—and Japan has Children’s Day! Today is a celebration for Shichi-Go-San, a Shinto rite of passage for girls aged 3 and 7, and boys aged 3 and 5. (Learn about this custom, and read a personal account, at TokyoWithChildren.)

Long ago, these ages indicated new rights for children—like growing out hair or dressing differently—but today, children are just wished a healthy future. Customs used to include the driving out of evil spirits from children, but today, parents just give thanks for their children’s lives and pray for them. (Wikipedia has details.) Although Shichi-Go-San isn’t officially until tomorrow, many (working) parents will observe it today, since they will be able to spend time with their children. (Guess what? There’s even a shrine in Honolulu that offers children’s services and kimono rentals for Shichi-Go-San! Check out the shrine’s site here.)

The Japanese culture regards odd numbers 3, 5 and 7 as lucky, so for more than 1,000 years, Shinto families have been taking sons and daughters of this age to shrines. Following the shrine visit, parents give their children “longevity candy,” or candy shaped like a stick. Candy and bags represent parents’ wishes for their children’s prosperous and long lives.