Thursday, May 12, 2016

Please let me hold your bag

Kaban wo motasete kudasai

Year of Requirement Part 8

In my high school in Suburbia, I was on Math Team. (I was also on Speech Team, but I never competed because Japanese Saturday School got in the way of tournaments.) I didn’t even think of trying out for athletic teams (which really really makes you wonder why on earth I thought joining an athletic team in university was a good idea). Like most high schools in the US, you tried out pre-season, and you were picked to be on the Freshman, JV or Varsity team (or you didn’t make it and sulked about it or did a club team somewhere or signed up for classes at the YMCA to up your proficiency for next season).

In Japan, especially in junior high school, clubs, or bukatsu, were (and are) a big thing. Everyone can join, but not everyone gets to play. My Year of Requirement was spent in a fairly small school, so there were only a limited number of clubs. My homeroom teacher gently nudged me away from the athletic clubs and band when he found out I had no experience in any of the available clubs. (I was O.K. in gymnastics, but they didn’t have that, and swim team either practiced in their own clubs or hid behind the equipment shed and smoked. They didn’t have choir.)

I chose the drama club. I had some experience in speech, and we did musicals in junior high, so I figured I was in pretty good shape. And I was. There was no dramatic brilliance in our group. We did exercises in projecting our voices (which I’d always been good at, see also: coxing a sternloader four with a microphone is for wusses) and little skits, and the big annual event was a performance in our school festival. No competitions or anything. We were a low-key group, up there with the home economics club and science club.

One thing that drama club had that all the other clubs had was a strict system of hierarchy. First years had to answer to second years who had to answer to third years who ruled the school (of course there was hierarchy within years as well). You had to use formal language when addressing your upperclassmen and address them as “Senpai” which means “one who is ahead of me.” (This varies between schools. Most people in my part of the country used “Senpai” exclusively, but some schools address upperclassmen with the standard issue honorific of “San.” And when I was in university, you addressed upperclassmen as “Tanaka-san.”) Underclassmen fetched and carried. In athletic clubs, especially ball sports, they chased after stray balls. In band, they carried trombone cases. In drama club, they carried the lights. The peak of absurdity was underclassmen carrying the 3rd year students’ school bags from the AV room where we practiced to the main entrance of the school. It kind of falls into the whole system of seniority that runs through the core of Japanese society. It’s moronic, but that’s how the world works, so I guess you’re getting an education when you go to a junior high school in Japan.

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