In the summer of 1995, I was 19 years old, living on my own a few blocks from the sea in Isla Vista, a suburb of Santa Barbara, adjunct to the city’s university. Though I had summer school classes and a job, it was a good time for me. Romantically, I was unattached, my bout with teenaged acne had finally cleared up, my hair had grown hippie brave and so had my fashion style. I was riding my bike to Sands Beach on sunny days and listening to classic rock all the time— Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Byrds. My closest friend that summer was a dude we called The Gripper, who was like a guru to me in what we called the art of jibbing (sic)— encountering beautiful girls and charming them into giving awkward young men a chance. That summer, on the 31st of August, I turned twenty years old. For the first time in my young adult life I knew exactly who I was and I was all right with that. To paraphrase, I was my own man now and have been ever since.

Of course, for Americans, the big birthday isn’t 20, but 21, when you’ve reached the legal drinking age (turning 18 gives you the right to smoke tobacco, vote in your political representatives and die for your country but that doesn’t have the same cachet as a six-pack for most of us). Personally twenty-one was a bit of an anticlimax— I’d had a fake ID for several years, and moreover had landed in Paris on the morning of my 21st birthday, where if you’re old enough to see over the counter, you’re old enough to order a drink.

There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. Click To Tweet

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In Japan, all the aforementioned privileges of adulthood are granted at twenty. There is even a holiday for it, the second Monday of January, known as Seijin no Hi, literally ‘Coming of Age Day,’ in which everybody who’s just turned twenty over the previous year gets dressed up and attends a (reputedly) dull ceremony at the local assembly hall, where they are at once congratulated on their calendar years and reminded that they are now citizens with the responsibilities of adulthood to consider.

These admonishments mostly fall on deaf ears. The real action is just outside, where several hundred young men and women loiter, either waiting to go inside or coming out, or else just rallying noisily over a bottle of shochu, or, conspiratorially, huddling over a smoke. Most of the men wear suits—their boy-next-door hair is neatly trimmed and carefully combed. A significant minority wears the hakama, and it being January, the haori, a hip-length kimono jacket. But we aren’t speaking of the formal-wear you’d wear to your grandmother’s machiya for green tea— the haori du jour is flamboyantly colorful, some featuring fierce animals (the tiger being a popular motif). Many of these youthful specimens have notable piercings and gratuitous tattoos; on not a few is an aura of aerosol, testified by a blonde, spiky haircut advocated by some trendy, tasteless youth mag. These young men might be adults now but their Japanese falls somewhere between uncouth and impolite and their communal laughter is shriller than a company of hyenas. Whatever you might think about Japanese men being shy, circumspect, and abstract in their indirectness would be dispelled by such theatrical yelling and falling over one other.

There is not a single young woman not wearing the fabled kimono and the foreigner (me) wonders how beautiful life in Japan might be if it had never been overrun by The Gap, Levi’s, and blouses from Donna Karan. The girls’ kimono are sometimes conservative, occasionally tempestuous, starbursting with enigmatic patterns and chic colors, their collared furs turned up against the winter wind; the devil is always in the details and the bolder blossoms are blowing all of our collective minds with deliriously manicured nails, half-inch eyelash extensions, vivid cheeks blush, and that sparkle stuff that only girls can ever remember the name of. They wobble in zori sandals to and fro, shrieking at each other’s comeliness. Hyper-aware of their adorability, nearly every woman is being photographed dozens of times by dozens of smartphones. I don’t even have to ask when I hold my camera up between us.

There is some hot rodding, but this being Japan, there are teen idols and Mickey Mouse paraphernalia painted on the sides of the vehicles, compromising the sinisterness of degenerate youth. Gunning their engines at five miles an hour, honking and heehawing noisily, the drivers are desperate to seen but on this day, narcissism levels being what they are, the babes in their daydreams are busy with their poses, so that only some members of the gauntlet of traffic cops glare indignantly.

I mill around, occasionally chatting up the young ones with well wishes and my compliments. I am there to take pictures, along with a small gaggle of Japanese retirees with big digital cameras. They move in packs, often piggybacking my shots, overwhelming the more extravagant peacocks, who pose grudgingly for rapid-fire shutter release shooting with a beautiful artifice of a smile. It’s only 1pm but already the drinking games are getting out of hand. There’s broken glass on the sidewalk and wanna-be hot shots with cornrows and platinum yellow braids are pounding beer cans and shochu bottles as their friends whinny in peer-pressurized chorus. There are some bad hangovers developing— you can see it in their eyes— that look in a twenty-year-old’s face, incomprehensible and insensitive to a body and soul’s limits. A dude one sip of sake away from tumbling, takes that sip and staggers—the crowd giving him a wide berth as many of the kimonos are rentals and anyways it would be embarrassing explaining the puke chunks to the dry cleaners. Some of the more inebriated “adults” are beginning to get really careless and I need to remove myself from the hullabaloo for a bit of air and perspective.

In the quieter environs of nearby Heian-jingu, a large shrine complex painted in bright, orange colors, I struggle reluctantly with introspective questions: wasn’t it so metaphorically tragic that the ceremony of becoming an adult entailed binge drinking and narcissistic posturing? Was this what Japanese men and women had a lifetime to look forward to? Humans: we’d come a long way since slaying a lion was our initiation into adulthood. But the questions engendered by this raucous setting were of a personal nature as well. For one, had I been something of an asshole myself at twenty? Did I know and respect my limits and the space of others when I danced with the elixir of youth? It was true that I had unique cultural values but I had my share of wild nights, and once I’d really known what a heady experience it was to abdicate control and give in to purely id proclivities. But had I handled myself mostly gracefully? There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. ‘It’s okay,’ I thought, hearing in the distance the ejaculatory shrieking of another drinking game going awry. Someday in the shockingly fast-creeping future, these presently intoxicated twenty-year-olds will come to this very same ceremony with their own kids. They’ll survey the drunken tomfoolery, wondering if they too had drunk one too many, and reflecting that if they had, what a long way they’ve come in the meantime.