Originally published in The Hindu on January 13, 2018

Public holidays around the world usually have national heroes, seasonal occurrences or God to thank. They are also as good a primer to a country as any expensively produced travel guide. For example, in Indonesia, they include five Islamic holidays, three Christian ones, a Buddhist break and a Hindu day of rest. Ergo: Indonesia is a plural and complex society. In China, they focus on Chinese New Year, Labour Day and National Day — indicating a Communist party at the helm of a nationalist project.

For the non-nationalist or non-spiritually inclined, public holidays can be unwelcome, equating overcrowding, noise pollution and untraceable plumbers. But even the most curmudgeonly Holiday Scrooge will find it difficult to nurture their vacation misanthropy in Japan, home to a gloriously motley collection of days off to celebrate mountains, old people, oceans, children and young adults.

January rings in the Coming-of-Age holiday (seijin no hi), celebrated on the second Monday of the month. This is the equivalent of a nationwide debutante’s ball, with 20-year-olds across the country feted for having reached adulthood. The holiday dates to 1948, but has roots in a traditional rite of passage called genpaku. Historically, genpaku ceremonies involved boys proving equal to a physically demanding task like shouldering a heavy bag of rice, while girls had to demonstrate adequate domestic skills like sewing.

The genpaku ritual was usually held when a child reached puberty. Today, adulthood in Japan has an official number: 20. Japanese youth can only apply for a credit card or a phone contract on reaching the age of 20. This is also the age at which they can legally smoke and drink.

It’s customary on seijin no hi for municipalities to host morning gatherings for newly-turned 20-year-olds, where they are subject to long-winded speeches by local dignitaries about their responsibilities as adults. Later, families visit shrines to pray for health and success. But it’s the wild parties that follow that have created somewhat of a moral panic among Japan’s staid establishment. The phrase areru seijinshiki or boisterous Coming-of-Age ceremony has become associated with the holiday, and ‘boisterous’ in the Japanese context is not a compliment. The drunken carousing, and brawling by multicolour-haired, reflector-tossing lotharios at some seijin no ji gatherings has more traditionally-minded Japanese appalled at the prospects of Japan’s youth.

Demographic decline

But even more appalling from the point of view of the country’s policymakers is the demographic decline highlighted by the holiday. There were an estimated 1.23 million new 20-year-olds in the last year, only half the number in 1970. Japan’s troubling demography is underscored by another public holiday as well, Respect for the Elderly day or keirō no hi, held every September. The flip side of the archipelago’s shrinking cohort of young adults is a rapid greying. More than 25% of Japan’s population is 65 years or older. And the working age population is predicted to decline by 10 million between 2015 and 2030 to 67 million.

In the nine months between seijin no hi and keirō no hi, the Japanese public also get days off for Vernal Equinox Day (March), Greenery Day (May), Ocean Day (July) and Mountain Day (August). Japan too is susceptible to sociological decoding from its list of holidays: an environmentally sensitive, demographically challenged country with a penchant for ritual and little time for religion.