Mainichi on the legal age of adulthood

News Navigator: Why is the legal age of adulthood 20 in Japan?

The Mainichi answers some common questions readers may have about the legal age of adulthood in Japan.

Question: A report recommending the legal age of adulthood be lowered from 20 to 18 was recently completed, wasn’t it? So, why was the age of majority set at 20 in the first place?

Answer: This question requires a deep look into Japanese history, to the early 8th century and the proliferation of the Taiho Code, which set the age for taxation and military service at 21 (20 by modern reckoning). In 1876, the Grand Council of State decreed the age of adulthood would be 20, and the Civil Code of 1898 followed suit, and the age has remained unchanged to the present day.

Q: So, the age of adulthood in Japan has been 20 for more than 1,000 years?

A: No, not always. Up through the Edo period, there was a ceremony called “genpuku” performed in various sections of society marking the attainment of manhood. The age a boy went through the ceremony differed depending on rank, but was usually performed at the age of 15 (14 by modern reckoning) for the samurai class. So, it can be said that the age at which society sees a person as an adult changes with the times.

Q: So, back then people were acknowledged as adults earlier than they are now. So why did the Meiji government set the age of adulthood at 20?

A: When the Civil Code was enacted, the most common age of majority in the West was 21. It’s probable that the Meiji government set the age with an eye to the West. The most common explanation of the sudden jump to 20 years of age was made to bring Japan close to the Western standard. There were, however, those at the time who said that Japanese people developed more quickly than Westerners. While the age of adulthood was lower than in foreign countries at the time, the nations of the West lowered their own legal age of majority one after another, and now it is Japan that has the higher figure.

Q: If the age of adulthood is lowered to 18, will the Coming-of-Age Ceremony also be moved to match? Most people of that age are in the final year of high school, and it seems like the mood around the ceremony would change.

A: Now, the ceremony brings people who have left their hometowns back together for a kind of class-reunion, so it seems likely that the issue would be discussed by local governments that are primarily responsible for holding the ceremonies. If the age of majority is set at 18, then many people still in high school would become adults.

This point has come under discussion by the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice, and laws setting the age of adulthood at 19, or for the March following a person’s 18th birthday, have been proposed. However, in the end, discussion settled around reducing the voting age to 18. (Answers by Junichi Ishikawa, City News Department)

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