Photos by Reika Nishiyama & David Yamaguchi Text by David Yamaguchi
Sunday, Jan. 15, was the fourth annual SEIJIN-Shiki USA in Greater Seattle. It was an impressive celebration centered on Seijin, those who recently turned 20 or 21, the ages of full adulthood in Japan and in the US, respectively. The Seattle-area event happens on the Sunday of Martin Luther King Day weekend. This is about a week after the “Seijin-no-Hi” national holiday in Japan which is the second Monday in January.
The point of the local ceremony is to give youth here the opportunity to participate in the once-in-a-lifetime event. Through living in the US, Japanese youth miss out on participating in Japan. To the credit of the JIA (Japanese in America) Foundationthat sponsors it, the event is not only for the youth of Japanese expatriate families; full participation is open to all youth who are interested in Japanese culture.
From reading brief news stories of Seijin-no-Hi, one might easily get the impression that it is all about clothes, for Japan has had fabulous threads since time immemorial .
However, on attending, one finds that like many things Japanese, the ceremony has depth. As explained in a greeting from JIA Foundation president Megumi Ijiri Haskin, the organization’s overall goals are community education and identity. It sponsors events to help people “thrive and be happy in the USA.”
Turning to the Seijin-Shiki ceremony which “no organizations here were doing,” JIA saw it as its responsibility to start it four years ago.
Haskin closed by exhorting the gathered 104 Seijin to “look back on how you got here” and “to be proud of who you are… It is our hope that this SEIJIN-shiki USA gives you the courage to rise to challenges and feel the love and support surrounding you… we hope to have you come back as a Senpai (older “brothers and sisters” who give speeches), (to) tell us about your journey…”
Next, Maki Kawamura, Senior Consul, Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle, and event co-host, She began by saying, “When I was your age, I dreamed of becoming a diplomat.”
En route, she requested to study United Nations languages such as English and French. However, she was instead assigned to become a Thailand expert, including its language. Thai is difficult to study, as it both lacks a Roman alphabet and is a tonal language with five tones. She would spend the next two years studying Thai.
A senior officer advised the daunted Kawamura that she would not regret becoming a Thai expert.
Kawamura then put up her next slide, showing herself translating between the Thai and Japanese royal families. She would later work closely with a visiting Thai doctor and nurse, in northern Japan in the wake of its 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake. A Sendai native whose own family home was destroyed by the ensuing tsunami, Kawamura found she could really help the people because she could empathize with and translate for them.
More recently, Kawamura has been working on climate change. She also commented on the improved status of women working as diplomats for Japan. In the early 1990s, there were few. Since 2000, more have joined, benefitting from rule changes that have made the field more female-friendly.
Her parting message to the Seijin is “Nichi nichi kore kojitsu,” literally “Every day is a good day.”
Interpreting the phrase more broadly, she challenged the Seijin to “strive to make every day a good day.”
The central part of the ceremony, brief messages from Senpai on the road ahead beyond age 20, followed Kawamura’s inspiring remarks. The first two Senpai spoke remotely.
The first Senpai was Sakura Kokumai, who competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in karate for Team USA.
Her message was “if you love what you do and you have a dream and a goal, anything is possible.”
She followed up by saying that people discouraged her from going for the Tokyo Olympics.
For her, “the journey continues.
She broadcast her remarks from a gym where she was training.
Next came Kazuma Jinnouchi, a music composer for video games, movies and TV shows since the early 2000s.
“Now you get to be responsible for a lot more things in your life,” he told the Seijin. “It’s never too late to change course in your life… You might end up in a place where you are really happy.”
He changed careers and fell in love with the work. Though he had studied music in Boston, he never expected a career in it.
Jinnouchi’s music is in the movie, “Suzume,” which will be released this April.
Senpai #3 was Shinji Maeda, the self-titled local “one-eyed pilot.” Speaking in person, he began by thanking all for the invitation to speak and for the opportunity to participate in his first Seijin-Shiki.
In 1998, when he should have attended a Seijin-Shiki, instead he was hit by a car and thrown from his motorcycle to the ground. A consequence was that he lost his eyesight in his right eye. This meant that he simultaneously lost his qualification to become an airline pilot in Japan, where rules are strict.
In his despair, however, he learned that it was still possible to become a pilot in the United States, so he embarked on that revised journey.
Two years ago, he flew a small plane solo around the world.
Speaking more broadly, Maeda commented that “Today is a huge milestone for your parents as well. Take this moment to reflect on what your parents did for you for decades. I have two kids now…”
“Talk to your parents. (They) are always listening to you… without them, you (would) not (be) here… If you are struggling, talk with them…:
Maeda continued by showing slides of his own father, who was diagnosed with cancer and died one month later.
He elaborated how “people said (to him), you are handicapped… you cannot…”
He said, “This country gave me a chance.”
He continued, “Today is your 20-year celebration… spend time with parents, teachers, friends… feel who you are and what you can do… your future is very bright.”
He ended with “don’t drink and drive drunk. Please…” (perhaps referring to his own accident).
Next up were brief speeches by two Seijin, Iona Hillman and Miki Kusunose. Hillmanis a third-year University of Washington (UW) student majoring in archaeology. She described how she “struggled with her identity… my English is too broken… how (she) was silent in class…”
“In Japan, I was too American… different… so I was wrong.”
Hillman closed by saying that “It is in the space between (that) you will find your community.”
US-born Kusunose similarly described the dumb question that people ask him, “When did you immigrate to the US?”
His feminine name, “Miki” “has also taught him to be comfortable with ambiguity.
A fourth speaker was Yu Ugawa, a kimono master-teacher who flew in for the event from Kobe. Involved in kimono work for fifty years, she helped dress the participants, each of whom took a half hour with three volunteers. She gave the audience a brief lesson on kimono types and how to act while wearing them.
The program was closed by a performance by UW Taiko Kai, followed by the giving of certificates, and Seijin picture-taking onstage.
After final congratulations, the Seijin were pointed toward a well-placed Japan Exchange Teachers (JET) program information table, an outstanding place for Seijin to start their lives after college.
Seijin no Hi
• The first Seijin-no-Hi was celebrated in Japan during the Nara Period (CE 710-794), when it was termed “Genpuku.”
• In 1946, the event was resumed in Japan, to energize youth to revitalize the nation after WWII. It became a national holiday in
• The 2023 SEIJIN-Shiki USA, Seijin of America ceremony, was only the second ceremony held in-person owing to the COVID-19
pandemic. In 2021 and 2022, the event was held remotely. The latter event was especially hard, as the in-person event was canceled nine days beforehand owing to the arrival of the Omicron variant.
On Wearing Kimono
• Japan has had fabulous clothes since at least its late Asuka Period (538-710), when women were painted wearing striped dresses on a tomb wall.
• Kimono for young, single women have long sleeves, or “furisode.”
• When you pick up something, for example, a teapot, hold your sleeve with the other hand, to keep it out of the way. • Before sitting down, drape both furisode over one arm so they will not drag on the ground. After sitting, fold them flat on your