Monday, April 10, 2006

Rural Primary School Entrance Ceremony

In the Japanese countryside there is a surplus of education and a deficit of students. This is maninly due to kaso, depopulation in the countryside. Combined with the Japanese tendency towards excessive formality, this results in a near-death experience for the unwilling visitor.

At Miyata shougakkou, the mass of useless and mind-numbing ritual only accentualtes the reality- that an entrance ceremony with two students, who cannot understand anything that happens, is absurd, a travesty of education. Perhaps in the golden-warm daydream idyll of AmamiOshima, entrance ceremonies are held on the beachunder swaying palm trees. Topless local wenches serve tumblers of warm shochu to picnicking teachers. The new kids frolic along the surf, laughing in the tropical sun. In the evening, a warm tropical breeze washes over couples entwined together in the sand. That's Omami Oshima, right?

But in Nejime things are a little different. First there is the tea time, when the kyoikuinkai staff andthe PTA meet in the principal's office to brood over awkward silences. Any visiting ALT looks around in vain for a woman who is not holding a tea pot or someone under the age of 60. Traditional sweets lay determinedly untouched on the table (in my first year, such was my naivety that I actually attempted to eat one of these nightmares. I was the center of glaring silence for five minutes as I grimly consumed my way through the sticky mess). Then we make our way to the school hall where the twenty PTA and twenty other guests, none of whom know the names of any kids at the school, sit themselves in grey formal lines of approaching senility. The forty dark suits accompany varying degrees of baldness, dementia and poor dental work. On the other side sit the teachers, and in between are the school kids, who have trained extensively to perform 'entrance ceremony duties'. A productive use of school time, of course; any suggestion that kids should be learning skills that allow them to deal flexibly and confidently with a changing and dynamic world being the mere ramblings of a foreigner who should respect Japanese culture more.

A round of orchestrated applause greets the incoming new first years, those two poor kids who just might, in their as-yet-mostly-underveloped minds, have some growing realisation as to the sheer number of boring ceremonies their future life holds. The bewildered5-year-olds sit down, outnumbered 20-1 by guests and picking their noses furiously. On the stage, the school flag and the Japanese flag are hung side by side. Next to the podium is an extravagant two-metre flower arrangement, the price of which would probably have been enough to pay for a tsunami warning centerin the Indian ocean a couple of years ago. The ceremony is officially opened by the Japanese national anthem, the suicide-inducing dirge that must surely partly explain Japan's high rate of self-inflicted death. "Hey, don't know why so manyJapanese off themeselves? Listen to this!" Then follows the speeches, which is where Hell really begins. "No, Mr Evangelical Christian, your threats ofEternal Damnation do not scare me! I've been to a Japanese school entrance ceremony!" Principal,Vice-principal, PTA president, vice-president, kyouikuchyou, class sensei, random kid, homeless guy(Oh, wait, he's the mayor!), each taking 10 minutes and all repetitions of the same theme: gambate, studyhard, have a good time, do us proud. One of the kids started happily eating his own snot halfway through the first speech; the embalmed mummy on my right revealed he was alive by softly snoring; and I passed the time thinking about entrance ceremonies on AmamiOshima...

After the ceremony selected 'lucky guests' were coerced back to the principal's office for more tea. The principal complained eloquently about having to combine classes because classes were too small. I refrained from observing that in Australia (or indeed,any country that doesn't have too much money for its own good) a school with 17 students would have achallenging time staying open altogether. Lurking oppressive but unspoken behind the discussion was the phenomenon of kaso itself, the ultimate causeof Miyata shougakkou's problems. But that's anothertopic entirely.

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