6 Ways Sports Day in a Japanese school showcases the differences between North American and Japanese schools

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Sports day sports day! Here it comes with swelter and gusto, here it comes with joy and good cheer!

Sports day in Canada? I dunno, kicking around a soccer ball on some dirty field while the teachers sneak out for smoke breaks? Sports day in Japan? Well hey there: strap into your seats, because seriously folks, you ‘aint seen nothing like this.

Seriously. In the week leading up to sports day, the long afternoons of watching the boys do endless drills, I’ve probably never seen a Canadian school get so excited about anything. And after six hours of game after game, parents cheering behind me but the teachers always cheering louder louder go go go, I get a new appreciation for where I am and what I’m seeing—which is to say, I’ve never seen anything like this. And so much of what went on in a Japanese sports day, I think (at least in the early stage of my time here), showcases many of what I’ve seen so far as the key differences between North American and Japanese education systems are.

6) The school’s sensitivity to symbolism

The ceremony opened with the students bringing out the Japanese flag while the national anthem played from the speakers. With lyrics from the 800s (making it the oldest national anthem in the world) about the everlasting might of the emperor, and its somber pentatonic progression, Japan’s national anthem is one of the most stirring in the world. When played on a yellow field with six hundred students all standing at attention—barely even twitching—the scene seemed to declare the importance of the tradition which sports day and schools in Japan in general stands upon. Using national symbols like the flag, the anthem, and the students (ie, the future of the nation), the festival repeatedly called upon ceremony and history in a way I hadn’t seen since France. You won’t find a Canadian public school that so openly plays on tradition or a sense of duty in its school events. And as much as this ceremony was for all those in attendance, parents and others, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the person who was supposed to see this: with everyone else standing at attention, I was the single audience member in this spectacle.

It was one of those times I really felt the distances between those cultures, really felt my own ‘foreignness.’ It gave me a different perspective for what it means to be a cultural ambassador as a member of the JET Programme. But I gotta say, this is one of those striking moments I still can’t put my finger on.

5) The distinction of Gender

I came to Japan full-well knowing that the culture’s distinctly different views on gender would be one of the key points of both disagreement and frustration during my stay here. And while my experiences with this need a separate blog post in of themselves (not to mention, a lot more time to begin to understand the nuances and complexities of such a system), I can say here that you sure as hell see the distinction play out in the classroom. It’s pretty disheartening to see that, while elementary school girls are about as loud and racous as elementary boys, by junior high the girls grow quieter as the boys grow louder. By third year (9th grade), it’s often impossible to get an answer out of most girls in the class, and a boy near them will often but in and answer for her.

I try to tell myself that a key part of this reservation comes with me being a youngish male teacher talking to them during when puberty hits with full brutality (and it’s definitely a huge part of it, no doubt). But sports day made a couple of my notions explicit: even though the boys and the girls got to participate the same amount of time, they participated in very different ways. In a relay race, for example, in which the object of the game was to grab clothes and dress team mates up, only the boys got to dress up, and when each team did a little skit at the end of their series, the boys were always the main characters.

These distinctions were at their height during the ======, the half-time show which anchors sports day. The girls got to do a hundred-year old dance which lasted ten minutes. The boys, meanwhile, got to do military-style excersizes. Classic. Now both, in the end, become quite spectacular, but there is heightened tension with the boys one: while a dance is relatively simple to nail once it’s been practiced multiple times, building a pyramid out of wriggling teenagers is rife with tension—you can never tell if it’ll be successful, and some years they weren’t. Everyone sat on the edge of their seat. When the final boy stood to attention, looking out on the world from the heights, the crowd broke into a series of cheers they wouldn’t do again.

And with the boys finishing off the morning’s ceremonies, they once again got to be the stars of the show.

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4) The work ethic of the students

To say Japanese junior high students work hard would probably be a really unfair understatement towards them; to say they work more like coffee-addled final-year Uni students would be closer to the truth. For the third years, all shooting for the impossibly difficult high school next year, it’s hard to find a pair of eyes in the class that aren’t bloodshot. That’s because once they finish school they’re in their club activities; once they finish club activities they’re in an extra cram school for that big entrance exam a couple months away. Japan is notorious for its work culture which tends to expect its employees to put in 14-16 hours a day, and it appears that mindset is already being molded by the time they’re 13.

That same unflagging work ethic is brought to the field. From Monday to Friday, the students put in close to three hours of practice each day—that’s 180 straight minutes of lifting each other onto their backs and leaning to the point of collapse in the boy’s case, and practicing a song to its minute, hair’sbreath of a step in the girl’s case. All this with school still as the backdrop—all that cramming, that cramming never ends. And yet, here they are: one boy lifting five more boys on top of him, their leg muscles taut like the string of a bow. In the boys’ cases especially, their bodies are pushed to the limits, almost daring to defy gravity and every other law that used to apply to teenagers.

Seriously, in all of this, where’s the badly made uniforms? Where’s the kids who say “fuck this” and skip class, go for cigarettes out past the school? What happened to all I knew about teenagers? All of that’s still there in the regular classroom, I’ve been forced to learn. But for sports day? It disappears.

3) The community mindset of the students

The idea that these students work so uniformly hard to achieve the great pyramid at the end gets at a very different philosophy behind teaching. I believe that where most Western schools emphasize the individual achievement, Japanese schools tend to emphasize the achievement of the group.

Think about it: by the time you were in Junior High School, how often were you actually encouraged by the teacher to help your classmates out when they were having trouble? Although my schools occasionally had group projects or discussion time, silence was typically enforced when solving problems—even discussion time, like it would be in university, encouraged students to come up with their own unique ideas, separate from the rest of the group.

In Japanese schools, outside of a test, the group almost always comes first. When I try to get them to answer a question, I constantly have to rely on group work to get them actually engaged—asking a single person only makes them freeze up. Oh, and there’s no such thing as failing the class and being held back: every student will always progress with the rest of their classmates, in the belief that their classmates will always help them forward.

When those 60 boys made a pyramid out of themselves, they symbolized the merits of working together—seemed to say to the crowd, “look! We’d never get here on our own!” And hey, I can’t disagree with them: try that in one of my schools and we’d have at least nine or ten broken bones.

2) The Community at Large

On sports day, this community spirit only grew larger. By the opening of the ceremonies, over a hundred people had turned up to watch, a crowd that included family members but also teachers and staff from the surrounding elementary schools and people living in the area. Some sat in the stands around us, others crowded against the fence to watch the key events around lunchtime. By altering the dynamic of the procession, adding new gravity to the flag bearing and new drama to the dance, they turned the day into a celebration.

Joining the third years in their 100 M sprint, a volley of cheers hit me while I lined up for the dash: some of my elementary students, 1/3 my size but 600 times more adorable, would’ve run out to grab at me if they hadn’t been held back by mothers. It threw me off from the run (yeah… that’s why I lost! Right…?), but suddenly I didn’t feel like the conscious outsider as during the opening ceremony. I’d become part of the community too. After that, everything that went on—the fast students the slow students the angry gym teacher the funny relays—didn’t seem so alien to me anymore. The more I got into the spirit with everyone else, the less I kept reminding myself exactly how strange it all was. By the end, it wasn’t so strange anymore.

Though I couldn't be a true part of the community till I wore the school's blazer... well, guess I got that life goal checked
Though I couldn’t be a true part of the community till I wore the school’s blazer… well, guess I got that life goal checked

1) The work ethic of the teachers

But then, in the end, one thing still stood out: the teachers.

And as hard as the students work, the teachers work ten times harder. I’m contracted to be there from 8 till 4, but am sometimes expected to stay and help students until 6. Those days, I slink home so exhausted I spend the rest of the night eating pockies and watching Louie. Most teachers, I’m told, stay there until closer to 8-9:30. Never mind all the extra days they come to school on the weekends to help with clubs or school maintenance.

Now, you’ll find teachers who dedicate their lives to their students in any school in any country across the world (if there weren’t, we’d have a whole whack of stupid and deranged people popping up everywhere). But in Japan, this is teaching beyond teaching, teaching as life. Teachers are expected to take active interests in their students lives, especially their homeroom students. I’ve been told this can mean as much s getting to know that student’s family and helping or reprimanding that student

Sports day really demonstrated the degree to which this is true. In the week leading up to it, the teachers squeezed in every moment they could to come and help the students with their warm ups, whether by giving them words of encouragement or by doing the (extremely important) job of lifting them up the pyramid. All of this while still working full time being, y’know, a teacher. On the day of, while the parents cheered loud the teachers always cheered harder: I’ve been told Japanese teachers act like second parents to their students, but on that day I swear they could’ve been their first ones.

What I saw on sports day was a love of teaching in its most basic form. And damnit if I wasn’t a little bit jealous of them.

I could continue talking for hours about how strange sports day was. I could talk about the different dances, or the strange activities, or the teacher’s party that went on after (on second thought, probably not that last one). I could go on and on with superlatives like how it’s one of the stranger, more culture-shockey wham-bam moments of my life.

But then, I won’t. Because as much as this post was phrased in the language of difference, what it really showed me at the end of the day was that the basic human connection between a student and teacher doesn’t really ever change in essence. As much as I wish more of my teachers were like the ones I saw out there that day, I can definitely list a number of my own just like them: those that actually gave a damn and helped me out in the various basket-case times of my life, who directed me here in some form or another. And as much as the initial ceremony and the gender dynamics really pinned my outsider status to my vest at first, the enthusiasm and optimism of everyone there eventually changed things completely: by the end of the night, I had never felt so welcome at the school.

At the end of it, sports day was really fucking cool, left me saying to myself over and over that I’m so thankful just to be here to see this. It’s given me a lot more to think about for what it means to be a cultural ambassador in the programme, thoughts I can’t quite phrase just yet. But I will say this:

“Shit Canada, they got us beat on this one.”

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