If you take a walk anywhere in Japan in the months of July and August, it’s possible to identify where the ichinensei in your neighborhood live. Look out at the balconies of the apāto, or the small yards of the homes. If you see a morning glory plant in a pot, then you’ve found a first grader.
First grade is an important grade in Japan. It is not about the academics, but rather it is about teaching children to live in society. After entering school they learn about themselves, and then about their families. After that they learn about their own school, and the circle continues to widen out to the world. To do this, they also have themes that cover all subjects. In the autumn, we were surprised to see the role of donguri. They counted them, sung songs about them, read about them, picked them up and helped clean the area around the school of them, and then used them for art projects. It turns out that you can get a lot of mileage out of an acorn.
We had moved to Yagumo, an area in the Meguro Ward of Tokyo, in the middle of the school year. I enrolled my daughter in first grade at the Yagumo Elementary School, wondering if she’d be the first foreign girl there. But it turned out that years ago there had been a British child, and since my daughter spoke Japanese they were amiable and welcoming. As her okāsan there was a slew of preparation I had to do. I received a stack of past class newsletters to review, and a math set that needed to have labels put on every piece, some of which were smaller than dimes. You had to write your child’s namae on tiny labels and then put them on every single item. There was no way that my clumsy Japanese script would fit on those labels, so I cheated and put her very unique first name on the tiny pieces. As for the stack of newsletters, I did give them a glance and did my best, but all of them were hand written and difficult to decipher. I was amazed that the teacher would send home this newsletter each week. It told the parents exactly what they’d studied in school that week, and what the shukudai for the next week would be. It was illustrated with seasonal pictures and also had shout-outs to children who had made some kind of achievement. I imagine it is all done via the internet today, which is sad in some ways, though more ecologically sound.
Japanese children do not have a long natsu yasumi. The school year begins in April and is divided into trimesters. The first trimester runs from April until the third week of July. Then they break until September 1. A 40 day natsu yasumi seems more effective than the American system since children have less time to forget what they have learned. And because it comes mid-school year, instead of at the end of the school year, teachers are able to give shukudai.
Yes, homework. The first graders got piles of worksheets to do to review what they’d learned in their first trimester of school. They also had projects. And even though it was summer vacation, it wasn’t like they weren’t going to school. In fact, they went to school pretty regularly for swimming lessons. Almost every Japanese elementary school comes equipped with a swimming pool. In the cities, Japan is always pressed for space, and many of these pools were found on the roof of the school. This is where the Yagumo Elementary School pool was located and my daughter, along with the rest of her class, trotted off for swimming lessons each day of the summer. It was just expected that children would be around for these classes, and they were scheduled at different times during the week. There were regulation mizugi and caps to be bought and labeled, and a whole list of instructions for what and when a child could eat before swimming class. Shana came home the first day with an attendance card and proudly showed me her sticker. The goal was to fill the card with stickers and achieve good attendance and to also get a rank in swimming. (There are ranks for everything in Japan, not just karate.)
One of the bigger homework projects involved a morning glory plant. Each first grader had nurtured their plant from seeds, starting back in April. I guessed that Shana would not be able to participate in this project because we’d moved to Yagumo in June and she didn’t have a plant. I was wrong. It turns out that the teacher had one for her. When I asked the teacher how she could possibly have known that she’d get a transfer student (very unusual in Japan) two months after school had begun, she happily informed me that she had three “extras” that she secretly was growing herself in case they were needed.
Each day the plant figured into her homework. It was used for observation. She had to draw pictures of the flowers on it at different times of day. It was used for math, as she counted the blossoms and then did math problems based on the different colors. For me, the scary part was keeping it alive over the summer. I don’t know what kind of penalty a mother would get if she and her child killed the teacher’s morning glory, but luckily these plants were pretty hardy and even the rowdy boys in her class brought them back proudly at the beginning of September fully intact. It was eye opening to see how one plant could be used for so much. Watering the plant each day and determining how much water was also the child’s job. So they learned to nurture something, with a built in guarantee that the plant was hardy and the job was doable even for a six year old.
During the summer, Shana also had a few days of usagi duty. The school had a rabbit, and each day a sixth grader and a first grader would be responsible for feeding it. The school often paired sixth and first graders together since the first grader would learn the ropes from an older child, and the older child would profit from being in a teaching role. She trotted off to the school, lettuce and carrots in hand.
The last reason that she had to go to school was for a week of rajio taiso. And that’s another post I’ll make this summer!
- ichinensei – 一年生 a first-grader. At an elementary school, but is also used for the first years of junior high, high school, and college, though usually modified to indicate which level of school.
- apāto – アパート apartment
- donguri – どんぐり acorn
- okāsan – お母さん mother
- namae – 名前 name
- shukudai – 宿題 homework
- mizugi – 水着 bathing suit
- usagi – ウサギ rabbit
- rajio taisō – ラジオ体操 radio exercise. Explanation to come….