On Monday K-sensei told us, "Tomorrow there will be only one class in the morning, because the students are going to a play." This time the ALTs were allowed to come along as it was only a ten-minute walk. I was thrilled because I've long been into theatre, and I very much wanted to see the Japanese equivalent live - whether the traditional forms such as kabuki or noh, or the modern ones I've seen on DVD which are as fascinating as anything Broadway has given us.
When we set out, it had been raining all night and all morning, so as many students has had umbrellas carried them and for those who didn't, there were bins of ones in the locker room that had been left behind in years past. Almost no one wears coats here, and even the kids who had the long jackets suitable for bike riding didn't wear them while walking. Ah, and since the first of June there's been a uniform change-over, so the girls now wear slightly lighter fabric (though identical in appearance) skirts with white shirts (the ribbon now being navy, so the overall appearance is as though they have been photoshop-inversed from the waist up) and the boys have been allowed to lose their stiff jacket. The overall appearance is much more airy and relaxed, and they seem more comfortable if the (slightly) decreased tendency to strip is any indication.
From the school we walked along Uchi River, which despite the concrete boundaries managed to look wild and beautiful in its engorged state, with the banks coated in wildflowers. We walked two or three abreast in order of year, with teachers separating each class. Staff without a homeroom - including the principal(!) stood at checkpoints along the way, including one place where a stream poured over the path and a science teacher pointed with a baton saying "ki o tsukete" - take care. I desperately wish that I could take pictures of the students, because you can't imagine what an incredible sight it was. More than 700 children with their identical uniforms and a rainbow of umbrellas in every conceivable pattern. Before we set out I was certain someone would get lost or hurt, but it was so well choreographed that everything was fine. A couple of the wilder boys would dart off the path to stand at the water's edge, but for the most part everyone stayed in their designated spot. They followed where their teacher lead, up a stair, down a path, across a bridge, and the children chatted happily amongst themselves. When I was on a higher part I couldn't see the end of the line in either direction, and all I could think was, "There are so many of them."
I think that's really one of the most incredible things about this country. I've heard people say there's no room for nonconformity and everyone is browbeaten into being the same and children can have no creative spirit or imagination. But it feels rather as though the structure and discipline and rules and organization provides a foundation, like a vine growing on a trellis. When you know for certain how you have to behave, you appreciate more the aspects in which you are free.
When we got to the theater (which is right next to that library I went to my first week in town) I was a little disappointed to learn that it was a concert of classical music performed by a six-piece ensemble, and not a drama. It's not that I don't love music as well, it's just that classical music is pretty much the same world over, and a Japanese play would have been something I hadn't seen before. Well, hopefully another day... I had some fun figuring out the katakana for Western composers names - Ba-hha, Shu-beruto, Sho-pan - and marveled that there was a Disney Medley on the program - I'd read the other day about a concert in America that had to change its song list day-of because of copywright issues but I guess Walt's long arm doesn't reach to Japan. And then when I looked at the back I saw something that took my breath away. There were full lyrics printed for a sing-along with the audience, and not just to any song. It was SMAP's Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana.
Now, I have a special relationship with this song. Heck, all of Japan has a special relationship with this song (which perhaps makes it not very special anymore but.). The title translates to "A Flower Unlike Any Other in the World" and it was released in 2003 by a group, SMAP, who, despite being known for their poor singing, managed to sell two million copies of this very sweet, inspirational song. (Written, btw, by Makihara Noriyuki, who's also an incredible guy.) It's - well, it's a bit sentimental:
"All of us are
A flower unique in the world.
All of us possess a different seed,
Let's make them bloom well."
But for some reason this sentiment appealed to an entire nation, and the song became an anthem of sorts. You hear all kinds of stories about entire schools singing it at graduations and commencements, and kids will have the choreography memorized, and people will get nostalgic years later when they hear it. It's like singing Imagine in the US. I couldn't read the kanji to the lyrics sheet, but I knew the melody (and the chorus) so I hummed along happily.
And then we walked back to school in the rain along the banks of the swollen river. It was a good day.
Concert version: (with tiny adorable children doing the moves!)
PV: (with English lyrics!)