When I first found out that the Japanese school year ended in March instead of July, I just wrote it off as one of the many differences between Japanese and British life. It’s only now – after living in Japan for five months – that I can really appreciate why it ends when it does.
Yes, the current school system may be based on the structure of French term times, and it’s influenced by financial factors, but it also lines up perfectly with the sakura season.
Sakura are probably the most famous flower linked with Japan and for good reason too. Not only are they beautiful, but they also don’t last long, and it’s that symbolism that solidified the sakura’s place in Japanese culture. In hanakotoba (花言葉, the Japanese language of flowers), sakura mean ‘kind’ and ‘gentle’, but they also represent the “transience of life” and revered for their impermanence, they’re a sign that nothing is forever.
Because of that, it makes perfect sense that the school year would end just as they start to bloom. It’s such a transitional period, with the eldest students graduating, younger students moving up a grade and some teachers transferring schools.
The end of March also saw the end of my first contract in Japan. While I had already decided that I would be staying, I still had to wait until the last few weeks to receive my new paperwork. During those weeks, I’d said so many goodbyes it became almost like following a script. I’d had to give speeches in front of both students and co-workers, in English, Japanese, and a combination of the two. My room started to look like a florist with the bouquets I was given and I hoarded every note the children wrote for me.
I was also invited to an end of year nomikai (飲み会, drinking party). Like I mentioned in my last blog, this nomikai was an opportunity to meet up outside of school to celebrate everyone’s hard work and to signify the conclusion of the school year. There were still a couple of weeks until the official holiday, but the sixth graders’ graduation ceremony had been held that day so it was definitely the beginning of the end.
I arrived at the venue, which was a beautiful izakaya in the city centre. Izakaya are typically considered the Japanese equivalent to a pub or bar, and while alcohol is usually the top priority they’re also known for their food, which can range from cheap and cheerful to more upmarket choices. In fact, this izakaya would probably be more like a high-end gastropub if we were to compare it to places in the UK.
As soon as I got there, I was greeted by a co-worker who escorted me inside, asking “Is washoku okay?”
Washoku is the term used for traditional Japanese food, written using the characters 和食, 和 (wa) meaning peace and harmony but also denoting ‘Japan’ and 食 (shoku) meaning food or meal. There’s not much Japanese food I shy away from now, so I assured him that it was fine.
(However, natto is still a firm ‘no’ from me. I wish I liked it, I really do.)
The inside of the izakaya had a mix of different seating areas from Western-style tables and chairs, to the very Japanese tatami mat flooring where our party was seated. Thankfully, to avoid having to sit in seiza position all night – which I can only manage for about fifteen minutes at the most – underneath the table was hollowed out so we could stretch out our legs.
The nomikai started off with a toast, which was swiftly followed by the first course of our meal. As the night progressed, we were brought several different kinds of food including tempura, salad, sashimi (raw fish) and mochi (rice cake). Our drinks were also kept full, and because it was nomihoudai (飲み放題 all you can drink) I tried to be sensible and chose green tea whenever I could.
Still, there was a tower of sake cups at each end of the table. Other than the people who don’t drink alcohol, almost everyone accepted one. I really wanted to show that I was joining in and a few teachers were surprised when I said that I liked sake, so I took one as well. With a kanpai (乾杯, cheers), we all drank a toast together.
A few co-workers were challenged to chug whatever was left and for a moment, I was reminded of the drinking culture in Britain, which was kind of unexpected in such a Japanese environment. I made an offhand comment that it felt natsukashii (懐かしい, nostalgic) and I was promptly handed another drink in response.
Over the course of the night, the teachers were invited to stand up and give a few words. The nomikai was coming to a close and it was almost time to finish, but I’d been well fed, I’d managed to keep up with the other drinkers without being too drunk, and I’d had several conversations – only speaking two words of English the entire night. The last person stood up and gave their speech and to my surprise, they announced that there was one more person to speak… and that person was me.
I hadn’t expected to be asked to address the whole party, especially not the final words of the night, but I stood up and tried my hardest to express how thankful I was for the last few months. There was a round of applause and one of my colleagues hugged me, which was very welcome because Japan doesn’t really do physical contact and I love a good hug.
In that moment, I really felt included, but this new school year is going to mean changes in my own life too. As of next week, I will be starting work at different schools, facing the (almost) unknown once more. It’s going to be a blank slate where I’ll have to build trust and a reputation from the ground up, but at least I won’t be starting from square one this time. I’ve grown used to living in Japan by now and I have nearly five months of teaching experience behind me. My Japanese may not be great, but it’s way better than it was when I first moved here.
The change does seem slightly intimidating at the moment, but hey, I’ve had bigger challenges in the past. I’ve done it once, and I can do it again.