It's interesting what is and isn't acceptable at work and in public in Japan. For example, it would be considered extremely rude for me to cross my legs ankle-to knee right now, or put on my sunglasses even here in the harsh sun. Meanwhile, a nearby teacher wears a huge green translucent visor the he's angled down across his face, creating a sort of welding-mask effect. beside me, two teachers exchange what sounds like useful gossip, and the teacher to my right sleeps in his folding chair.
In fact, it's acceptable to sleep almost anywhere under any circumstances, which tells me that sleep is neglected here on a national scale. It's especially common to sleep on the bus or train. it's quite usual to see businessmen, heads down and eyes closed, supposedly sleeping even as they stand on their 5-minute commute, clinging to the hand grips dangling from above.
The students are all dressed in white tshirts and color-coordinated gym shorts corresponding to their class year. I sit with the other teachers in my "sports clothes" --a tech shirt and gym shorts-- under the shade of a tent pitched by the students. Some of the teachers are decked out in white baseball caps, track suits and many of the women wear light jackets and wide-brimmed hats to shield themselves from the sun beating down, attempting to keep their skin pale (more feminine).
We sit in folding chairs under shaded oasis in the middle of the sports field as a brass band military march is piped over the field through tinny loudspeakers. The students march in place in eight blocks organized by gender and class rank, legs all rising and falling in unison. Blocks of dark legs and light legs. Blocks of boys and girls.
watching the students practice for Sports Day, coming up this weekend, i suddenly feel that i am sitting on a scene at a training camp during World War II in Japan. The students begin to march around the field in synchrony and practice raising their arms, straight out at a 45 degree angle as they pass the teachers' tent, evoking an eerily nazi military aesthetic that disagrees with their gym shorts and smiling faces. along with the tinny march music blaring on loop over the speakers, it feels like i've been dropped into a black and white newsreel.
However, although these marching drills are perhaps military-inspired, they have little to do with aggression or violence and everything to do with group-mindedness, arguably the fundamental component informing Japanese social culture. The students leard to fall into order, becoming simple moving parts of a bigger, complex whole. 1000 pairs of legs rising and falling together. Blocks of dark legs and light legs. Blocks of colored shorts.
My vice principal, (my boss) is new to our staff this year, and so it is his first Sports Day at Asakura High School as well. He turns to me from his folding chair just to my right and says as an aside,
"Beautiful, isnt it?"
I have to agree. Like the many bubbly arms of some sea anemone waving together in the same ocean current, the students all moving together perfectly becomes something larger than itself. Something that hints at group consciousness. Japan, a nation with few natural resources, a small string of islands in the Pacific, surrounded by larger countrie, has developed for itself a toolbox of cultural developments that allow it to become greater than the sum of its parts. Attitudes that menetrate every aspect of the culture. Perhaps the school system in particular.
The students are marching past us again, arms outstretched, folding then neatly, row by row, as they pass the teachers' sanctuary of shade. Another group of students acting as color-guard traverse the field, carrying a twelve foot Japanese flag in two rows of four. a lone student leads the group bearing the school flag: a green field embroidered with gold, containing the school logo and name, written in kanji, in the middle.
The flag-bearers stop midfield and march in place as the hundreds of other students march, blocked, around the field, lining up to join them marching in place.
A teacher in a bright white baseball cap and white polo shirt, collar popped, yells commands on the loudspeaker over the music, which is now starting again on loop for the 5th or 6th time. The students now wait as the music stops and they receive what i can only imagine to be a pretty harsh critique from the drill teacher.
Now they run back to the end of the field and form, again, their perfect straight rows by raising their arms straight out in front of them, and measuring aligning themselves with those in front.
The music begins again and they start to run the drill once more. They will be practicing all week.