The noble pheasant has always been valued for its gorgeous plumage and prized as a source of food. It is also a symbol of masculinity and courage and was adopted as the national bird of Japan in 1947. It has been used to decorate the highest denomination banknote in the Japanese currency, roughly equivalent to one hundred U.S dollars. The pheasant has a very distinctive call and is said to be a harbinger of earthquakes. Not only that, the male will call incessantly to the female in mating rituals and therefore is a symbol marker that Spring is about to start. Speaking of fancy feathers, the second Monday in January is a national holiday called Seijin-no-hi “Coming of Age Day”. At this time most municipalities across the country hold ceremonies to which all the local 20 year olds are invited. Many of these young people especially women, take this occasion as an opportunity to dress in traditional Japanese garments such as furisode which are highly decorative long sleeved kimono. Getting dressed up in a kimono is anything but a casual affair. Copious time and money is shelled out for a professional dressing accompanied by makeup and hair styling along with a swag of studio photos as a commemorative event sometimes months in advance to avoid stress and crowding on the actual day itself. Then the preening will be reproduced on the public holiday again to prepare the debutante “pheasants” for their first official foray into Japanese society. This event is eagerly looked forward to by the nation’s youth as much for the chance to get together with old high school friends as to create an indelible memory, second only in pomp and ceremony to the lavish weddings that tend to characterize Japanese life.
The transition from carefree student life to being a member of society shakkai-jin is a very important rite of passage and a clear demarcation of new attendant responsibilities and expectations for young people. Unlike their Western society counterparts where reaching the age of majority is somewhat of an anti-climax (drinking and driving ages having already been achieved some years earlier), turning 20 in Japan is literally the “key to the door” for Japanese teenagers in more ways than one.
On the second Monday of January, I always make it a point to stroll down to one of the grand shrines of Kyoto to have a gawk and take some photos of the earnest young “adults” in their very photogenic finery.
Around the 15th of January is a period traditionally known as koshogatsu “little new year”. Originally an observance in Japanese agricultural society, prayers were offered for a successful rice harvest and it always corresponded with a full moon. Traditional decorations that appear at this time include mochibana “mochi flowers”, which are small balls of glutinous rice cake threaded onto slender branches (typically willow). Red and white is the traditional color combination symbolizing happiness and the mochibana herald the successful ripening of the rice grain in the early/middle autumn of the year. Once again it becomes very clear that ritual observances in traditional Japanese life were almost always focused on the all important rice crop.