Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Rice Cake Fair

Every year in March, the students of Niigata Elementary School and their parents participate in the Rice Cake Fair. Mochi, or rice cakes, are made from a special variety of rice. The rice is first boiled, and the cooked rice is then placed in a large wooden mortar, the usu. The rice is subsequently pounded with a massive wooden pestle, the kine. When the rice becomes a heavy, glutinous mass, it is ready to enjoy. The school provided bean jam and soybean flour as toppings, and the children and adults speedily devoured what had taken considerable time and effort to produce. Mochi is commercially prepared by machine, the traditional laborious method being used only at festivals. Rice cakes are eaten year round but figure prominently at New Year's, when they are both consumed and used as decorations. The kagami mochi is a traditional mochi decoration as well as offering to the gods, and it consists of two or three rice cakes placed one atop the other. Though our own benighted age permits all manner of regrettable lapses, traditional usage stipulated that kagami mochi be displayed beginning December 28th. This was due to superstitious beliefs regarding auspicious dates for display, the nearest to January 1st being the 28th of the preceding month. Needless to say, such practices have long since fallen into disuse in this decadent era. When they are not being employed for sacred purposes, kagami mochi of plastic construction may be put to uses sartorial. Rice cakes are sometimes offered by shrines as New Year's gifts to visitors, a custom discontinued at Niigata's Yahiko Shrine after a stampede claimed 124 lives on Jaunuary 1st, 1956.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

And The Winners Are...

Monday, March 12, is the date of the anouncement of public high school entrance exam results this year. It is now shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon, and the atmosphere in the teachers' room is tensely expectant as third grade homeroom teachers and the school administration await the fateful ringing of the phone. The high schools post exam results on large notice boards at the school entrance, and the students attempting to enter the school nervously scan the boards for their registration number, hoping they are numbered among the elect. The students are joined by a teacher from their middle school who relays the results to the school itself by phone. Even as I write, the phone rings bringing additional announcements. The students who pass the exam remain at the school for a packet containing information about the upcoming school year. Those who fail the test return to their middle school later in the afternoon to confer with their homeroom teacher regarding Plan B. The latter generally involves sitting the entrance exam the following day at one of the private high schools in the area. Students whose parents cannot afford the exorbitant tuition and fees of private schools may take the "second chance" exam, held March 26, at one of the less desirable public high schools, for at this late stage they are the only ones with vacancies remaining.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Junior High School Graduation Ceremony

There is a ceremony for nearly every occasion at Japanese public schools. The school year begins in early April with the entrance ceremony for incoming first-year students. Scheduled for the following day is the ceremony inaugurating the new school year. Not to discriminate, the first and last days of each term throughout the year are similarly granted their own special notice. Another ceremony, that welcoming new teachers to a school, is held at the beginning of the year and throughout the year when necessary. Niigata City ALTs change schools three times a year and are therefore welcomed at their second and third term placements in what is effectively a private ceremony. The farewell ceremony for teachers is held at the end of the school year. The public servant transfer system accounts for most departures. Under this system, public school teachers are sent to two schools during their first six years, often in isolated or rural areas. If the teacher survives six years in the sticks, he is rewarded with a seven year posting at a school administered by the city in which he hopes to reside. Every seven years thereafter the teacher is transferred to a different school. Finally, Japanese schools celebrate the major anniversaries of their founding, with commemorative aerial photos taken of the students arrayed on the playground in the form of the school logo. These ceremonies are observed with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance. The super heavyweight event of them all, that boasting the greatest endowment of the two aforementioned qualities, is the Graduation Ceremony. The ceremony is formally opened with an official declaration, followed by the singing of the controversial national anthem, the Kimigayo, as well as the school's own song. The graduating students are then called to the stage by homeroom class to receive their diplomas from the principal. Speeches exhorting the graduates to perseverance and excellence are made by the principal and PTA president, the addresses often including references to Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, successful Japanese baseballers in the U.S. Major Leagues. The speeches are followed by choral performances by the entire student body. The accompanying photos show the school entrance and gymnasium decorated for graduation on March 7.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Standoff at Kisaki, Round II

The harassed tenants who persisted in defying the government and its local representative, education superintendent Majima Keijiro, removed their children from public schools. They subsequently established their own schools, further rousing the ire of the authorities. The latter employed forceful measures to counter the tenants, and many activists were detained by the constabulary. Contemporaneously, the national tenants' union underwent a period of debilitating internal dissension, further isolating the tenant farmers in Kisaki. After a protracted eight year struggle, the tenants were finally defeated in 1930. By this time, the only school remaining for tenants' children was a post-elementary institution, the others having been closed years before. The photos show the public elementary and middle schools in Kisaki.
Note: Historian Mikiso Hane's Peasants, Rebels, & Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan is the source of the preceding information, which I have loosely paraphrased.