Military PrecisionThe harsh gladitorial cry rose up from the baseball ground and shook the school. A few seconds later and the crowd began to chant in unison, clapping and spurting out propaganda at the top of their voices. 'Red team to win! Those Whites are no good! Down with Blue'. I sat watching the classes march onto the athletic field, banners carried before them, each student goose-stepping in formation, arms limp by their sides, faces turned to the empty podium.
Little by little they took up their places under the watchful gaze of the teachers. Silence. Not a murmur or a whisper. The punishment in being so bold as to speak would be total humiliation in front of the entire school body. The Principal took up his place, surveyed his ranks, wrinkled up his face and began his speech. The words, half of which I did not understand, were harsh, drumming into the students the need to give everything they had for their team, that no less than their best would do, that here today they had to prove their worth for the school. School spirit. Team competition. No small battle.
Sports Day had come again...
Sports Day when I was in school was a jovial, care free sort of mess. There was competition between classes, but there were no hard feelings at the end of the day. The tiny silver cup given to the winning class was forgotten long before the contest finished. I hated and loved it all at once, just because it was an escape from class, a time to put aside petty differences. Maybe it is a rose-tinted view, but I nonetheless recall it as being a lot of fun.
In Japan you get the impression that if a student loses his race then the world is at an end. Tears stream down the hardiest of boys faces, apologies are bowed to the team, teachers wear grim expressions, all as if it is more than friendly competition. Which in a way it is. The school is segregated into three teams, three colours. Each class is a different colour. Rather than fighting for your class, you struggle for your colour. Teachers too are placed in one group or the other, not simply as organisers, but as team leaders. Today a young teacher bounded up to me excitedly and asked me what team I would like to be in. Throwing some hints about the strongest team, she suggested I join hers. As the foreigner, I am allowed to choose my side.
I smiled at her and said that I wouldn't be attending Sports Day. Not my choice, but the wise company that employs me. Yet another missed chance to bond with my students, whilst I traipse off to my pseudo-job at one of the elementary schools. The teacher's face instantly crumpled and without another word she whisked off, leaving me feeling embarrassed and conscious of her disbelieving sighs.
Sitting out on the steps today, I watched the practise unfurl, aware that I was again the black sheep of the school. A Switzerland in human form if you like. Without a team for the next week and a bit I will be without a role in the school. Maybe the comparison with Switzerland is not so wrong, as it seemed as if I had stumbled upon a Nazi rally. Let me expand. I don't think I am being unfair.
Japanese junior high schools practise for Sports Day religiously for weeks before the event. Classes are canceled, clubs are put on hold and whole schedules rearranged. Everything is carefully coordinated and planned, down to the opening ceremony march. As the somber music of the National Anthem played out over the neighbourhood, I felt that I had slipped back in time to the war years. Immaculately turned out in their sports gear, the students again and again were directed how to march, run, sit, line up and participate. Every single tiny detail thought of.
Smooth, sure. But all that wonderful, chaotic fun was missing.
This morning my teaching partner saddled up to my desk and told me that today there would be extra practise. On Monday some elderly people walking past the school had watched the opening ceremony march, and had later called the school to complain that the students looked messy and undisciplined. What they were saying was 'in my day things were very different'. Hmmm, yes quite. I was both shocked and saddened. Older generations fear that if youth is given a free reign then the world will stop spinning, so they try to cow them with their own values and ideals. Older generations didn't exactly live in a golden age, they have made more than their fair share of mistakes that we are still living with.
So far, 25 hours in September have been taken up in just practising for the big day. Athens spent half that time on the Olympics. A step up from mere controlling, the school wants no surprises, wants to control each part of the celebration. I don't think I would be too surprised if they had decided which students had won. Just to make sure everything went smoothly next week.
Please, please loosen up a little.