While volunteers wrapped and folded Emily Farmer in the layers of a kimono, she put her four semesters of Japanese to the test.
The Pitt sophomore majoring in molecular biology understood when they would ask about things like the lengths of the garments or its front and back during the “kitsuke” dressing process Friday at the University Club.
“It’s cool to be able to hear conversations. … You can hear words that you’ve learned and you can piece it together,” said Farmer of Easton, Pa.
The group started early in the afternoon, taking about 10 to 20 minutes to dress each of the three dozen students leading up to Seijin Shiki, a coming-of-age ceremony hosted by Pitt’s Asian Studies Center and English Language Institute.
In Japan, the second Monday in January is designated for the celebration as a national holiday, where 20-year-olds mark their transition into adulthood. There, 20 is the age when adults can legally drive, drink, smoke, gamble and — until 2015 when it was lowered to 18 — vote.
About two-thirds of the group were Japanese students from Yasuda Women’s University in Hiroshima, visiting for intensive English studies beginning in August that will end Jan. 20.
“I don’t want to go back to Japan,” said Sabara Shintaki, waiting for the ceremony to start with a group of her friends. “People here are so nice.”
When the exchange program started three years ago between the two universities, Japanese students brought up their dismay in missing Seijin-no-hi, or Coming-of-Age Day, and the ceremonies that are held in each local government office accompanied by lots of pomp and picture-taking, as one of the rare times Japanese young people wear traditional dress.
“We were inspired to say why don’t we do (our own ceremony) here and it would be a perfect capstone,” said Lynn Kawaratani, assistant director for partnerships and programs at Pitt’s Asian Studies Center.
Junko Higashibeppu, chairwoman of the Japanese Nationality Room Committee, said she was glad to volunteer her time since these Japanese students were missing the day with their families and friends at home.
“I still remember one picture with my father,” she said. “I think parents are proud of their children becoming 20 … I still vividly remember that picture and what I wore that day.”
About eight volunteers from the committee, Japan America Society of Pennsylvania and Japan Association of Greater Pittsburgh dressed the young women and two young men in kimonos, which were borrowed from members of the groups.
“For them to say, ‘we want these students to have this special experience, we will lend them our clothing,’ … that’s amazing,” said Rob Mucklo, special programs and activities supervisor with Pitt’s English Language Institute.
The Seijin Shiki ceremony, in its second year, is meant just as much for Pitt students as the Japanese students visiting, a part of “Pitt to the World and the World to Pitt”, the university’s global plan, Mucklo said.
Once the students were dressed and lined up, they processed in to the ballroom to begin the ceremony.
Giving remarks to the students to welcome them to adulthood were Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Feyisola Alabi of Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, Pitt officials and retired WTAE broadcaster Sally Wiggin, who holds a master’s degree in Asian Studies and has visited Japan four times.
“You do what many who travel do,” she told them, herself wearing a kimono. “You bridge a gap, and this is a time in our world where we need more of that, we need more bridges, we need more understanding.”
Each student was given chopsticks with the Pitt logo, then had a photo taken with Roc, the Pitt Panther mascot. A cherry tree will also be planted in North Park in their honor, a part of the Sakura Project.
Wearing a red and white kimono, Nora Douglas of Washington D.C., who is studying chemistry at Pitt, said she hopes to be chosen as a volunteer at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, with about seven years’ experience studying Japanese.
“I’m not one who easily makes friends, and this is probably one of the easiest times in my life where I have,” she said. “Pitt’s setting the pace for other schools who pride themselves on international cultural exchange.”
Stacey Federoff is a freelancer.