Saturday, June 28, 2008


A calligraphy display from my school's Culture Festival

Last week was a big week at my high school. It was time for two of the school's three major festivals for the year, Chorus Festival and Culture Festival (Bunkasai in Japanese). The other big hurrah is the Sports Festival in September.

Japanese schools don't have big fancy dances like prom or homecoming. They don't have Friday night baseball games that all the kids attend or anything like that. So these festivals are the main fun events for the kids, and they are a BIG DEAL.

Kids stayed after school every day for weeks leading up to the Chorus Festival to practice singing together. Every home room class (40 kids each — that's 24 classes in all) rehearsed their own song. From about 3:30 on everyday, their soaring voices filled the teachers room.

Last Thursday the festival finally arrived. Instead of reporting to school that day, everyone met downtown at Phoenix Hall, a large auditorium next door to the atomic bomb museum. It was a pretty posh place. Nice cushy seats and good air conditioning (not to be taken for granted in Japan!).

Over the course of the day, I heard performances by all 24 homerooms, as well as the mothers in the PTA, the teachers (not including me, thankfully, as my singing is about as pleasant as Chinese water torture) and the guitar club. The brass band also played several tunes. The event was actually a competition. After the winners were announced, the winning homeroom came back for an encore, too.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't catch a few winks here and there — there's only so much choir you can hear that you don't understand before your mind starts to drift — but it was still enjoyable. The kids really put their all into it and they had a good time. When it came time to announce winners for each grade and for the competition, they went absolutely berserk. Like they won the lottery or something. You can't help but smile when you see kids so happy.

The next day, Friday, school was in session but all classes were canceled so the kids could prepare for the Culture Festival on Saturday. My high school occasionally has school on Saturday for events such as this, but then closes the following Monday to make up for it. Besides school festivals, it sometimes has session on Saturday for "open campus" to allow junior high kids to check out the school to see if they want to go there, and for PTA days when parents are invited to come in and observe their child's classes. I'm always amazed that they have these Saturday events and I never hear anyone complain about it. I can only imagine the whining I'd hear from kids and parents in the U.S. if American schools just decided to require Saturday school from time to time.

Culture Fest really blew me away. Tons of people came. Lots of family members and the kids' friends. The halls were so packed that sometimes it was hard to move.

Every homeroom class and student club decorated a room and planned games or short dramas to entertain everyone. And when I say these kids decorated, I don't just mean they made some posters and hung some streamers. The amount of effort put into decorating this festival was astounding. Giant paper mache creations, large murals on the walls, 3-D decorations made out of cardboard and tin-foil.

The activities going on in some of the rooms were really creative. One class created a life-size board game on the floor of their classroom using giant cardboard tiles and dice. Another class organized an activity where students would work together to try to arrange hundreds of little colored tiles on the floor into a picture.

I enjoyed competing with a couple of boys to use chopsticks to catch paper airplanes mid-flight. I was not nearly skilled enough for such a game, not surprisingly.

There was also a timed game where you raced to use chopsticks to pick up rubber balls floating in a pool of water. So very Japanese. It was cool.

The kids even organized all the food booths for the festival, serving udon (thick Japanese noodles), curry rice, dango (pounded rice treat on a stick with sweet sauce), and bananas and strawberries in chocolate. One class decorated their room like a 7-Eleven and sold bread and donuts and drinks. How cool is that!

One of the most impressive parts were the short dramas that several classes created. They created huge, elaborate sets and created stages by shoving all the desks in a classroom together on one side of the room to form a platform. Then they'd set up chairs for the audience on the other half of the room and put a cardboard marquee out front with show times running throughout the day. People would come and cram themselves into the room to watch these kids perform on their stage made out of wooden desks. Dangerous, and a fire hazard, I have no doubt. This is another example of a kinda dangerous thing that Japanese schools do that no one worries about here, but that would give American parents and teachers a heart attack. I like that they just let the kids have fun without getting their panties in a bunch.

There were productions of Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and others. I chose to attend a showing of Momotaro (Peach Boy), a famous Japanese legend about a boy born out of a peach who grows up to fight and defeat demons with the help of some animal friends. My final assignment in my second Japanese class at Sinclair Community College was to translate the story of Momotaro into English. I was really excited when I was able to translate the story, so I have a special affection for the tale of Momotaro.

Here's a video clip of part of their performance. The kids really ham it up.

It was kinda cool when I realized that I actually understood some of the stuff they said!

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