Genpuku was traditionally considered a Major Rite, an important ritual affecting life course in which a child exchanged their childhood status for an adult status, and continues from the Nara (710–794 AD) into the Tokugawa Period (1603–1868). The ceremony was usually backed by an older society member of political importance, and included the exchange of a childhood name for a new adult name (烏帽子名 eboshi-na), the adoption of adult hairstyles and clothing, and the assumption of adult responsibilities. Genpuku was undergone by both males and females, but was differentiated by ceremonial dress, with men receiving signifying headgear such as a ceremonial court cap (kanmuri) or samurai helmet and women receiving, instead, a pleated skirt (mogi).The population, and members of the population, participating in genpuku depended largely upon both which historical time period the ceremony took place in and what kind of government was in place at the time.
Girls engaged in genpuku as well, although the particular ceremonial rituals were more commonly referred to as mogi. For women, as for men, the ceremony revolved around the presentation of adult clothing; however, women were presented with a pleated skirt, not a court cap. Girls participating in mogi coming-of-age ceremonies traditionally blackened their teeth, shaved their eyebrows, and applied makeup. In addition, their long unbound hair was tied on top of their head in an adult hairstyle.
In 1185 AD the aristocratic court government of classical Japan was replaced by a warrior-administration ushering in the Age of the Samurai. Just as the sons of aristocracy underwent the ceremony of genpuku to signify their adulthood, so did the sons of warrior nobility. The central feature of genpuku throughout this time period was the placing of a samurai helmet, rather than court cap, by a high status warrior. Adult samurai received their swords and armor at this time. After going through genpuku, youths were expected to do adult labor, and samurai-class men acquired full warrior status and were expected to fight in open battle. In addition, youths gained the right to marry, and to officiate at shrine ceremonies. The ceremony acted to bind youth to the previously mentioned high status warrior. Often this practice was used to confirm and solidify the social status of samurai families. For example, a samurai family of lower status might, through the ceremony of genpuku, become tied to a higher status family. The lower status son would then act as a retainer to the higher status warrior to whom he was tied. After genpuku, warrior sons were accepted as full adults and welcomed to a career in the warrior-administration.
In the Muromachi Period, a period set within the Age of the Samurai, genpuku gradually spread from the samurai class to include men and women of lower ranks. Within the less wealthy, genpuku was used as a way of acknowledging an entrance into occupational roles, often in the form of apprenticeship. Boys of farming families and the artisan class came of age at 15 to 17, an age that had more to do with their ability to do adult work and take on adult social responsibilities than with their readiness for marriage or war. As a result of the new meanings tied to the ceremony and work, the once solid transitions between childhood and adulthood were lost within the artisan and merchant classes. Adulthood was put off in order that youth could acquire more or new skills related to their future occupations, resulting in the re-emergence of a period resembling adolescence.
The average age of genpuku varied over time. For example, throughout the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), the age at which children underwent genpuku depended upon whether there was unrest. Full-fledged warriors were expected to take part in battle, so during the unsettled first years of the Tokugawa period, parents delayed genpuku until their sons were full-grown, at around 20 years old. However, as the country became more peaceful, a transition period resembling adolescence emerged. Young boys underwent genpuku and trained to be warriors under an older warrior, but did not engage in war. War acted as a sort of consummation following genpuku, solidifying societal acknowledgement of full adult warrior status. As the long peace continued, the appropriate age to transition from child to adult was lowered in response to dynastic pressures to marry and produce heirs. Boys could not marry until they came of age, so the “adolescent phase” vanished. By the 1700s the average coming of age of samurai-class boys was at 15 to 17, and in the early to mid-1800’s it dropped to an average of 13 to 15.
In modern Japan, these ceremonies have been replaced by annual coming-of-age ceremonies for 20-year-olds of both sexes called seijin shiki, or by a ceremony held in school for students who have turned 15 years of age, called a risshi-shiki, literally “standing hope ceremony,” in which children stand in front of the school and declare their goals for the future.