Coming of age across cultures

Japanese college students studying English at Pitt and Pitt students learning Japanese celebrated Seijin No Hi, a day that marks the maturity of young Japanese people who have turned 20 years old. It is held on the second Monday of January.

Young people dressed in traditional fine Japanese kimonos watched as a group of vivacious drummers smacked large wadaiko drums in the University Club last Friday night.

The performance, from Japanese drum ensemble Pittsburgh Taiko, was part of a Seijin No Hi —or Coming of Age Day — ceremony that 38 Japanese students studying English and Pitt students studying Japanese participated in. Across cultures, ceremonies such as these, like bat and bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras, are a way for young people to celebrate the transition to adulthood.

Seijin No Hi is a public holiday in Japan, held on the second Monday of January. It is a day that marks the maturity of young Japanese people who have turned 20, earning the right to smoke, drink and vote in elections, among other things.

After the performance, students filed into the ballroom to listen to speeches given by members of the local government, such as Pittsburgh City Councilperson Erika Strassburger and Pitt faculty like Alan Juffs of the English Language Institute. These speakers doled out small gifts to the students, two of whom gave closing speeches to their fellow participants.

The Asian Language Studies Center at Pitt, in partnership with Yasuda University’s English Language Institute in Japan, recognizes the significance of such a cultural and personal experience by hosting the event every year. Although Seijin No Hi is a festival that celebrates all 20-year-olds born in each year, sophomore Fusako Fujimoto said it was significant to her individually as well because she was asked to speak at the ceremony by one of her professors.

“To be honest, I really wanted to attend Japanese Coming of Age ceremony because it is special — it will be very special for me to attend that ceremony,” Fujimoto said.

John Stoner, a senior lecturer in the history department, said certain qualities distinguished the event from such other coming-of-age ceremonies across societies, like clothing and ritual styles.

“So I think that what marks this is ritual, what marks this is formality, this is a very formal style of dress. These beautiful kimonos really, I think, represent the seriousness with which this ceremony is taken in Japanese culture,” Stoner said.

To Stoner, the transition into adulthood translates throughout many cultures.

“Most societies of which I’m aware find some way to mark maturation — the maturation from childhood to adulthood,” he said. “But that happens in very different ages in very different places.”

While Seijin No Hi celebrates many 20-year-olds at once, the Jewish customs of bar mitzvah, for 13-year-old boys, and bat mitzvah, for 12- or 13-year-old girls, have their own schedule and make the child the spectacle. The celebrated youths lead the event entirely by themselves, although their families help plan everything, from the schedule to who is invited, which is typically family members and friends.

According to Max Cohen, a senior marketing and supply chain management double major, bar and bat mitzvahs can range from small get-togethers to extravagant parties of more than 100 friends and family members.

Participants, donning formal dresses or suits, enter the room and read a speech from the Jewish holy book, the Torah, to signify the completion of their Sunday school and mastery of the Torah’s teachings. Traditions like the Horah — an Israeli circle dance — are usually involved as well. As both a cultural and religious celebration of adulthood, the bar/bat mitzvah is one of the most important events for Jewish people, he said.

“The main reason [for the importance] being it’s kind of like the completion of our Sunday school time. So it’s almost like [Confirmation,] or something like that, that I know a lot of Christians have,” Cohen said.

Unlike the more uniform nature of annual Seijin No Hi celebrations, not all bat or bar mitzvahs proceed in the same way. Depending on the type of Judaism a person observes, their celebration may be different. Cohen said his relatives, who observe Orthodox Judaism, were considered adults in their community after their bar mitzvahs.

“My cousins are very observant Orthodox Jews. So there was a very different significance and things like that,” he said. “At that point they have to be considered an adult in their communities so they are treated the exact same way as somebody who’s 60 years old versus someone who’s 13.”

Senior French major Samantha Robertson said her bat mitzvah included personal touches, such as a montage of pictures of her growing up, and an “Around the World” theme. This, she said, was due to her family’s observation of Reform Judaism.

“I think the level of tradition is different for people … I’m a Reform Jew, so very low-key, that’s like the lowest layer,” she said. “If you’re an Orthodox Jew, your bar or bat mitzvah would be very high pressure, very much more religious.”

While Jewish children celebrate their coming-of-age in their early teen years, Latina girls celebrate the entrance into womanhood at 15, with a quinceañera. According to Selena Benitez-Cuffee, a Puerto Rican alumna who graduated in 2018, the event is comparable to a wedding — it involves plenty of food, music, a traditional waltz-type dance and even the cutting of an elegant cake. The girl is often accompanied by her loved ones — a court of “damas” and “chambelanes.” Benitez-Cuffee said a family’s religious observations play a factor into the planning as well, though the party soon follows.

“We’re a really Catholic family so we make sure we have the whole church ceremony,” she said. “And then it led into a party and it’s basically coming from a girl to a woman and making this big deal and having your family and friends and all of your loved ones around to celebrate that special moment for you.”

During the quinceañera, many girls participate in the Changing of the Shoes ceremony. Benitez-Cuffee said the ceremony celebrates a transition from girlhood to womanhood by changing from the shoes of a child to the shoes of an adult woman.

“So you’ll have sneakers or Converse, something comfortable — that’s like being a girl. And then it’s gonna be putting on your heels, which is kind of you going into womanhood,” she said.

Students who participated in a coming-of-age ceremony say it helps them feel more grounded to their culture or beliefs. Robertson said having a bat mitzvah has helped her stay connected to Judaism. 

“Especially with what’s been happening all the time, it’s hard to believe in a higher power or something so thinking about my bat mitzvah kind of brings me back to it and I’m like ‘oh, okay, that does make me feel better,” Robertson said. 

Benitez-Cuffee views quinceañeras in her family as a reminder of their heritage.

“For me and my family it was just a really big thing because it was a big cultural part and because most of my family is in the U.S. … it kind of helped us connect with our culture even though we are removed from it a little bit,”  Benitez-Cuffee said.

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