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Monday, September 29, 2014

A Japanese School Festival, Part 1: The Lengthy Opening Ceremony

This past Friday was the annual school festival at the junior high school where I have taught at for the last year. Last year (at a different school) was my first time experiencing this aspect of Japanese culture, and it was a very interesting insight into the differences between Japanese and American junior high school life.

For nearly the entire month of September students have been preparing for this festival. From students designing and submitting their own "symbol marks" (a logo to represent the year's festival) to spending hours after school and during preparing decorations for the classrooms, there isn't a student that doesn't have a hand in helping this event come together.

My current school's festival differed in a number of ways from my last, so each school clearly has their own take on the event. Talking with friends who also teach in junior high verified this, in that some schools have festivals lasting multiple days whereas both of the ones I attended only lasted one. Some don't even include some of the same components as the two I went to, and others add other activities. Universally, it is a time for the students to show off their artistic and creative abilities over a variety of different media outlets.

From last year's school festival
The week prior to the festival I stayed late helping students make decorations for their classroom. I painted a few doors, glued some eggshells, and helped make a house. It was such a nice way to spend some of the final days at this school. It is rare that I get to talk with students in such a relaxed fashion, and seeing their personalities outside of the classroom is something that I always enjoy. The day prior to the festival was spend solely in preparation so I was given the day off of work. It was awesome to come to school the day of and see everything finished. The kids were also very excited, so their energy was better than any coffee for a morning pick-me-up.

The festival itself begins in the gym. Every grade will give a performance of a play their class had written. Each class would have submitted a play and then the best one from each grade is chosen to perform. Another (first year) class is then given control of the opening ceremony.

Japan loves ceremonies. I have been to countless of them now and I am always impressed at just how much effort goes into them, even if the reason for having it seems rather simple or mundane to me. Walking into the gym all of the classes are sitting in the center; boys to the left, girls to the right. The constant separation of genders in this country is something that I'm still not completely used to. There is a huge white tarp covering the 3 square meter "symbol mark", which is to be seen by everyone during the opening ceremony for the first time. Scattered around are exactly 65 chairs for parents, guests, and teachers to sit in. Most of these will be filled by PTA moms and  maybe three fathers or grandfathers. The lack of parental involvement in these school functions is something that always makes me feel a bit sad, but these activities are done for the students, not their mothers and/or fathers.

The "symbol mark"
The ceremony began with a brief history of the school's "symbol marks" at past festivals and I was left feeling a little perplexed at the importance of it. To me, it's just a logo, but to the students it is something more. Something I'll never understand as I am not a Japanese student. After the slideshow there is a countdown to the reveal of the "symbol mark". A  few students cut the strings holding up the tarp, which falls down to reveal what, I must admit, to be a really impressive banner with an amazingly done 3D symbol. After everyone cheers and fawns over how great the logo looks, the creator of the "symbol mark" is called to the stage to accept a certificate from the student body president and give a speech about her inspiration behind creating the logo.

There is then a slideshow of the various classes preparing for the festival which, I would learn later, is the Song-Of-The-Festival. I cannot tell you what it was, but I am pretty sure I heard it fifty times over the course of the day in both standard and music box varieties. Finally, the class who prepared the opening ceremony sings a song and does a dance that involves a lot of organized clapping (which the rest of the school hilariously tries to clap along with). It was equal parts cute, strange and emotionless. But, I guess I really can't expect much else from seven graders.

Once the song is finished the attention is directed towards the Super Smash Bros party ball (くす玉 Kusudama, or medicine ball) hanging over the students which then opens and a huge banner that says "begin the school festival" unfurls from inside and the kids are showered in confetti. There is cheering and everyone is excited for it to finally begin. Even though we've all been sitting in the gym for thirty minutes and will continue to sit there for the next two plus hours watching performances.

Due to the length this has gotten, I've decided to split this blog post into two parts. Part two will include a brief summary of the performances and my thoughts on them, the way in which the schools were decorated, the band performance and the not-nearly-as-long-as-the-opening-ceremony closing ceremony.

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