Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rememberings and Endings

"And now, everyone, the graduates will enter the hall."

With that, the canned music starts, followed soon afterward by the continuing applause of the assembled faculty, students, VIPs, and guests. The graduating 9th graders march into the chilly, flower-decked gym to take their seats on the risers in front of the stage. As they come in strangely two by two, male and female, a lot of them look dazed, and with good reason. This is no ordinary graduation ceremony, and I'm not just saying that because my daughter is one of the graduates.

It is the last graduation ceremony that gym, indeed that SCHOOL, will ever see. Just as my daughter's junior high experience comes to an end, so does the 47-year history of the school itself. It is closing its doors for good this year, as is the 135-year-old elementary school my son is just finishing. Namegata is paring its education system down to just a handful of schools.

Some of the reasons for the closures are obvious. My daughter's graduating 9th grade class includes just 65 kids divided into two classes. The school has facilities for twice that number if not more, but rooms are sitting vacant. Young wedded couples are heading off to the cities to seek their fortunes, and those that stay behind here in the country aren't having as many children as they used to. One of the elementary schools in our district is down to only about 40 kids total. Sentiment is about the only reason to justify keeping such a school open, and it isn't much of an argument. My son's elementary school, on the other hand, still has a substantial student body, but like most of the other doomed institutions, its facilities are old, decrepit, and outdated. Japan spends far less on education compared to its GNP than any other developed nation. The old, wooden schools were torn down and replaced with the now-familiar cement blocks back in the 1960's and 1970's. However, once the schools were built, they were given only minimal maintenance and little if any upgrading. By the early 2000's, they were all crumbling, rust-covered hulks with dilapidated interiors, and many were already being rebuilt. Namegata apparently decided to kill two birds with one stone by consolidating schools as they replaced them with newer, more modern structures. That brings us to perhaps the biggest reason for the closures: lack of funding. Ever since it was forcibly created out of the towns of Aso, Kitaura, and Tamatsukuri, Namegata City has been in serious debt.

The graduates take their seats, and the ceremony gets underway. There are a couple of short speeches by faculty members, and then the graduates are given their diplomas. That's when the gabbing and complaining starts behind me. There are a couple of rather youngish-looking mothers there, both sporting fashionable dress and hair, makeup that would rival an oil painting, and the attitude of spoiled teenagers. Their jabbering and whining would continue unabated till the end of the ceremony. Fortunately, the long VIP speeches sedated me enough to prevent me from turning around and beating them into a coma with my video camera.

I can't help but recall that, just one year ago, I was in a home with no electricity, running water, or any means of communication. It was lacking part of its roof, and my family was busily getting the furniture back into shape and cleaning up all the shattered glass and china all over the floor. The kids' schools had all been shut down until further notice, and over in Kashima Ye Olde Academy was still serving as an emergency shelter for students who had no way to get home. A single transistor radio was our only contact with the outside world, and we kept our ears glued to it as it bore more and more bad news about the huge earthquake that had happened, the devastating tsunami it had created, the ongoing horror at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and an ever-increasing death toll number. It was as if civilization had ended, and we were trying to gather our wits to deal with the new reality. Civilization hadn't ended, of course, as today's graduation ceremony shows, but there is still so much to remind us that things will never be the same.

The VIP speeches come to a merciful end (though the vacuous blather behind me doesn't), and it's time for singing. The school's anthem is sung for one of its last few times. Then the graduates sing a song of farewell which is extremely touching (though extremely off key), and the tears start flowing. All around me, faces are being dabbed with handkerchiefs (while the ditzoids behind me blab on and on). Then it is time for a representative of the parents of the graduates to make a speech of gratitude to the teachers. As it happens, my wife got dragged kicking and screaming into that task. She's pretty as a picture in her kimono, which she had specially spruced up along with her hair by a specialist shortly before dawn this morning, but with her restricted gait, her march to the microphone looks kind of awkward. Even so, she delivers her speech with well-rehearsed grace, and tears start flowing again. (Fortunately, her nose doesn't grow.) Then it is time for the graduates and attending 7th and 8th graders to close the ceremony by singing the traditional Japanese graduation song, "Aogeba Totoshi". (Interestingly, at the senior high graduation ceremony at Ye Olde Academy, I always direct the orchestra as it plays a version of that song that I arranged. I've never bothered to pay any attention to the lyrics before, and now that I'm sitting and listening...and looking at the printed text, I finally realize how moving it is. Strange.) After that the graduates march out of the gym, and it is time for the rest of us to hurry up and wait. And wait. And wait. And complain about waiting in that freezing gym. And listen to those two overgrown brats wail about waiting in that freezing gym. And wait.

Finally we give up, and my wife tells me to take my son home and grab some lunch before I have to head off to the academy for the rest of the afternoon. My daughter's junior high is done, literally as well as figuratively. It's time to say goodbye to this crumbling relic of a school and get on with life.

Just as we got on with life a year ago.