Japan changes its definition of adulthood

Japan changes its definition of adulthood

On June 13, the upper house of Japan’s legislature, the National Diet, passed a bill that will lower the nation’s definition of adulthood from age 20 to 18.

The current definition has been in place for more than 140 years, since the Meiji era (1868–1912), and is being lowered with the hope that it will invigorate an aging society with a falling birth rate. 

The change follows a similar move by the Diet in 2015 that lowered the voting age from 20 to 18.

The law, which comes into force on April 1, 2022, will also enable 18- and 19-year-olds to apply for loans and credit cards without parental consent. The legal age at which women can get married will also be raised to 18 (from 16) in line with that for men. 

However, the legal age for drinking, smoking, and gambling remains unchanged, at 20.

“As the third largest economy in the world and a precursor of global trends in population aging, Japan’s recent experiences provide important lessons regarding how demographic shifts affect the labor market and individuals’ economic well-being,” according to Daiji Kawaguchi and Hiroaki Mori in their analysis of Japan’s labor market for IZA World of Labor.  

“Despite a plummeting working-age population, Japan has sustained its labor force size, thanks mostly to surging employment among women.”

Entering adulthood at 18 is a relatively mainstream concept internationally, but some in Japan have voiced concerns about young people coming of age whilst still attending high school or college. The country’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper stresses that families and society need to support young people who are still in the growth process to help them acquire a sense of independence and responsibility.

Stephan L. Thomsen, in his IZA World of Labor article, writes that “…time spent in school contributes to the development of skills and helps young people discover their preferences and interests and develop their talents.” However, although longer compulsory schooling has positive effects for the individual and for society in both monetary and non-monetary terms, it also incurs higher societal costs: longer schooling generally means later entry into the labor market. 

In countries facing aging populations, “[s]hortening secondary school can boost the sustainability of tax and social security systems by enabling people to work longer. It can also ease the rising shortages of skilled workers through intergenerational transfers of know-how,” says Thomsen. However, reforms must be organized so that the pros outweigh the cons, particularly potentially adverse effects on women’s achievement in secondary school and university.