Young and old

7 Apr

On Monday our kyoto-sensei (vice-principal) passed away. Yesterday was his funeral.

Today was the welcoming ceremony for our new first-graders, who are 12-13 years old.

It was an appropriate circle-of-life-y sequence of events. I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I would like to record everything that happened. I also think many people will find it interesting and informative.

Yesterday, almost the entire school staff, and many students who had played on his rugby team, went to Tajima-sensei’s funeral. I think around 250 people must have been there. It was a Buddhist ceremony, so quite different from anything we’re used to seeing in the States.

As we entered, we presented a black-and-white envelope to volunteers (mostly teachers) who were manning the reception tables. The envelopes held donations – people contribute anywhere from 3000-en (around $30) to 30,000-en ($300), which helps pay for the enormous cost of a Japanese funeral ($10-$25,000).

Like most teachers, I gave 3000-en, the correct gift for an acquaintance. I only spoke a few times with Tajima-sensei, though he was always an incredibly sweet and comfortable presence in the teachers’ office. I have missed him since he took medical leave back in November, and I will continue to miss him no matter who fills his position.

He was only 50 years old.

After presenting our envelopes and receiving a gift of green tea in return, we went into the main room. It was set up much like a funeral in the States – at the front, the coffin was covered in flowers (more flowers than I’ve ever seen in my life in one place), set on top of an altar that could be better called a stage. Tajima-sensei’s photo was in the center of the presentation. In front of the altar was a long, narrow table with a few empty incense burners, and in front of that, the rows of chairs.

Everyone was dressed in black – deathly, absolute black. The women in particular wore black from head to toe; men wore black business suits, white dress shirts, and black ties. Most people carried a “juzu,” basically a Buddhist rosary. We all sat down as directed by several ushers, and then a Buddhist priest entered. He was dressed in the most elaborate robe I have ever seen – gold, with colorful embroidery.

The priest walked up to the coffin and knelt before it, in between the long table and the stage. He began several minutes of chanting, with the periodic gong of a bell. Then several people were called up one at a time to address Tajima-sensei. They did not address the mourners; they faced the altar, and spoke directly to him. Interestingly, and understandably, the family did not speak. Our kocho-sensei (principal), a former rugby teammate, and former colleagues all spoke. While they spoke, everyone in the seats – everyone – cried. Sniffles, sobs and tears filled the room.

After the eulogies, everyone went up to the table at the front, put a little incense in the burners, bowed to the family and Tajima-sensei, and said a little prayer. That marked the end of the services, and then we all went outside to watch the coffin being brought to the hearse, and driven away.

It was a very emotional experience. Japanese people are generally reserved, but there are certain occasions where emotions are let out en masse. A funeral, of course, is one of them. Everyone was crying, and many people struggled to get through their eulogy. I couldn’t understand anything being said, but even I was moved to tears.

That was yesterday.

Today, we welcomed the first-graders to school. The gym was covered in paper and flowery decorations, and chairs were set up for the teachers, first-graders, and their parents. The teachers (myself excluded…. damn that language barrier!) were dressed as if going to a wedding – nice suits, white ties, skirts and dresses, pearls.

The new students marched in single file as the brass band played “Dancing Queen” in accompaniment. Several brief speeches followed, which, as usual, were interspersed with constant commands by the MC to stand up, bow, sit down, bow, stand up, bow, etc etc ad infinitum. Japanese school ceremonies are very regimented; everyone is told when to do what, and everyone waits patiently (and silently) as new speakers walk up to the stage, return to their seats, bow to the flag, etc etc.

The new students, as usual, are teensy and adorable and looked terrified. The parents were very excited and proud – many were taping the whole event; it seems to be almost as big a deal as graduation. Finally the students were marched off out of the gym to their homeroom classes, this time accompanied by a song that, if possible, was even more upbeat than Abba.

A final note – in both the funeral and the welcoming ceremony, sakura were referenced many times. I couldn’t understand what was said, but it’s not hard to imagine. At the funeral, they might have mentioned how the lives of the sakura are beautiful but brief, and all the more precious for it; today at the ceremony I’m sure they used the sakura as the marker of new beginnings; the start of spring, a new year, and a new school. These flowers serve as universal metaphors for life in Japan, and I think you have to understand and appreciate them to really grok all parts of Japanese life.


4 Responses to “Young and old”

  1. Bill April 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    Beautiful description of two moving events. Thank you.

  2. Sunny April 10, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    You described the events so well. Thank you.
    Different age from my first-graders!

    • tarasensei April 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      Thanks, mom. Yeah, it’s a totally different system! They start as first graders at each new school – elementary, junior high, and high school.

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