My Year of Requirement wasn’t all academics and PE. There were some arts-ish things too. One was “Bunkasai.” When I first heard about it, I didn’t get it. Culture festival? Cultural festival? Culture? Which one? Medival Europe? Classical Greece? Ming Dynasty China? Well, apparently, what was supposed to happen was stuff that wasn’t academics and wasn’t sports. So, band, visual arts, drama, home ec club and science club got to showcase what they were doing, plus each class worked on some kind of project. ("Arts festival" might have been a better name for it, but it wasn't exactly art. Science is, well, science, and Home Ec and Shop are Home Ec and Shop.) One class did a haunted house. Another made an original 15-minute movie, complete with their own script. Another made a makeshift planetarium with black trash bags and an overhead projector (remember those?) Our class researched local foods. We called local candy and food businesses to schedule visits and interview people about origins, ingredients, production, and such. We presented our findings in poster format.
(People familiar with Japanese anime might have read stuff about beauty pageants and cafes. Beauty pageants are a university thing. Yes, I said “are.” In this day and age, universities are parading women to be judged for their looks. I mean, seriously. Cafes were not permitted because they involved serving food, which the local Health Department didn’t allow JHS students to do.)
Now, this is in the mid ‘80s. Posters (especially posters in a language that didn’t use a phonetic alphabet like Japanese) meant handwritten posters. The kids with nice handwriting did a lot of the work. They’d (understandably) cry foul. If you knew better, you’d kind of ignore them hoping they’d calm down. But if you didn’t, like me, and meant well, like me, you might volunteer to do some of the handwriting work. If you’ve seen my English handwriting, you know it’s not too bad. Not breathtakingly beautiful, but neat. Legible. So you might be surprised to know my Japanese handwriting is pretty bad. Legible, but not nice by any means. So I’d meant well, but the poster didn’t turn out as nicely as everyone hoped, and they let me know they were disappointed. Um, ok. Next time, remind me not to try to be nice or fair.
I was in drama club (shut up) and I had a little part in the play we put on. It was a 20-minute performance and pretty much the only performance we did all year. The audience was reasonably respectful. No one messed up. It went all right. Band (wood and brass ensemble) played a few pieces. They were pretty good. Not spectacular by Japanese standards, but good. Probably would have blown away most US high school bands, but the band from my school in Suburbia was pretty put together, so they don’t count.
One thing that really surprised me is that they had band performances. Like, rock band. Like drums and electric guitars and synthesizers. Bands that wanted to perform in the festival auditioned in front of the teachers. Those who passed the audition were allowed to perform in front of the whole school. The audition was mostly about whether the kids had decent grades and attendance and behavior.
Which brings us to the outlaws of the school. Every culture has its outlaws, the “troubled” kids, the ones that have to be different. It was easy to be an outlaw in a Japanese JHS because everyone was so outwardly the same. If you colored your hair you’d be an outlaw. If you wore your skirts longer or shorter, you’d be an outlaw. If you wore pants that were baggier than everyone else’s, you’d be an outlaw. If you ate food other than school lunch during school, you’d be an outlaw. (Of course, cutting classes and giving other kids a hard time and fighting each other and kids from other schools is kind of universal.)
So the outlaws had a band. They auditioned, and the teachers called them not on their lack of musical talent (they were pretty o.k. and seemed reasonably well rehearsed, unlike some of the bands) but their attendance and behavior and their baggy pants and hair that wasn’t black (keep in mind this is Japan and the default hair color is black or normal aging gray, not peroxide yellow). The teachers used the band performance as a bait/ switch to blackmail the outlaws into going through the motions of law-abiding behavior and academics. So, predictably, the kids sat in class and wore the school uniform, including straight leg pants, and colored their hair black, until the day of the performance when they showed up in their baggy trousers and yellow hair and put on the best performance out of all the bands, and then went back to their wicked ways.
One of those kids now has his own company that hires out construction workers. At our JHS reunion, I heard him telling his former teacher that he understood now how hard it was to try to keep young kids from doing stupid things for their own good and protect them from the mistakes they made. The teacher was crying tears of joy. Not all the kids got their afterschool special storyline, but sometimes things work out.