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Sayonara, Sannen Sei

July 31, 2008

Back in March was the end of the school year. Exams finished up, and everyone got a few weeks off before re-emerging in April along with the sakura for a new school year. Although when I say they “got time off”, I of course mean they did so in the sense that coming to school every day went from being compulsory, to voluntary.  And, of course, it was the kind of “voluntary” that meant that there was really no difference. The attitude towards holidays here in Japan is a weird one – in that they don’t exist. It’s just a different curriculum runs for a few weeks. Every day, the kids would come in anyway, take “supplementary classes”, and practice their club activities. This obviously meant that the teachers had to come in every day as well, in order to teach and look after the kids.

I have done what many ALTs have done during this time period, which is come in late, do nothing, talk wistfully about how this sort of system doesn’t exist where we come from, let the Japanese teachers indulge in some fantasising about such a dream world, then go home early.

The only people in the school freed from this ridiculous system are the san-nen sei, the third-years. They finish up their final exams for their entire High School life, then get to leave and never come back! They will almost all be going to University starting in April, but that’s a long way away.

However, while in New Zealand, this was an unequivocal time to celebrate, the students in Japanese High School seem to treat it as kind of bittersweet. They are excited about the prospect of going on to the Next Step, but mostly, they’re sad about leaving this one behind. I’ve spoken many times about the comradery that seems to exist in Japanese schools which I feel was lacking in NZ ones. The students actually enjoy coming to school! Not to be confused with enjoying classes, they enjoy coming to see their friends, hang out, participate in club activities, and have a heightened awareness of the fact that they are, in fact, children.

It may be due to the fact that the adult life is so unbearably horrible, that the students in Japan really take stock of the fact that they have yet to grow up, and enjoy doing things they can do while they are young, for precisely the reason that they can only do these things while they are young. At that age, my friends and myself were happy to be growing up, and were aware of the benefits that adulthood would bring. Japanese students seem to be more keenly aware of the pitfalls. Which probably makes things much more depressing sometimes, but also means that they grasp their youth for all it’s worth, while they have it. Which is not all bad.

When it was time to leave High School, the students all get sad. They have made so many great memories and shared so many good times with the people they have gone through school with, that they don’t want to leave. It can be a touching scene. And this year’s san-nen sei decided to go out with a bang. A couple of weeks after graduation, they hired out a bar. The graduating class had many students involved in bands, so they got everyone together, and staged one last concert for everyone to celebrate their last time together. And they invited me, along with another foreign teacher there.

When I visit a dingy underground livehouse on a Saturday night, I’m usually in a certain mindset. And if the place is packed to the gills with nubile young girls, I’m usually in a certain mindset. Hanging out with a bunch of my students, all without uniform, and on a roughly equal footing, was actually kind of unsettling. My instincts were at a brutal clash with my head. I went to have a beer to relax, but the strongest drink available was ginger ale, due to the drinking age in Japan being the jokingly high age of 20.

A couple of girls dressed in the kind of clothes they’d never get away with at school did some breakdancing.

The music was shit, largely. That would have been a mix of poor acoustics, the fact that they were in fact only high school bands, and the fact that some of the kids I recognised as being awake for approximately 1 percent of my classes were trying to sing songs in English.

But, the atmosphere was great. People cheered their friends. Bands made break-up announcements. People talked

about where they were going next. One boy in a band made a confession about the girl he’s liked all this time. I didn’t see the girl, but I can’t imagine she felt anything other than embarrassed. As the night wore on, my fellow foreigner decided to leave, so I decided to follow him rather than be drawn into the temptation of a world I really didn’t belong in. The students – though not my students anymore – continued to party.

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