March 02, 2017

Back to school

"All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare. And in anime, that stage is, more often than not, a high school

The simplest reason why is the target audience. Except most otaku have long left high school. And I suspect that a lot of them, like me, have no desire to go back. So the better reason is that Japan is just one big high school all of the time.

No need for nostalgia when you are still living the life.

Granted, there's a lot of overlap among those in Japan and the U.S. who are always looking forward to the next class reunion. But the nostalgia Japanese feel about high school is of a different sort. It defines the institutional waters in which they will swim for the rest of their lives.

They put the uniform on in junior high and never take it off. News reports involving teenagers often refer to them not by age but by year in school, using the shorthand: 中 (1/2/3) for junior high and 高 (1/2/3) for high school.

For example, I found this question on an education forum: 「15才だと中3、高1どっち?」 "If you are 15 years old, are you a junior high senior or a high school freshman?"

The answer is that if you are 「早生まれ」 (haya'umare, lit. "early birth," meaning born between 1/1 and 4/1) then you're a 「高1」. The school year in Japan begins in April.

Your school becomes your identity, even taking over responsibilities that in the U.S. would fall to law enforcement or social service. As Justin Sevakis explains,

Say, for example, a kid gets in trouble for shoplifting. In Japan, the police might get called, but after that the next call would be to the kid's school. The homeroom teacher would come to apologize on the kid's behalf. And then the school would call in the kid's parents for a conference.

The paternalistic expectations established in high school never end. For Japanese, to paraphrase Faulkner, "Your high school past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past."

All secondary schools, public and private, are essentially open enrollment and most require entrance exams. The fiscal year is the same as the school year. Corporations large and small hold recruiting drives and "matriculation" ceremonies that mirror those of high school.

The nostalgia Japanese feel for high school (reflected in anime) is directed at the first two or so years, before students start sweating blood preparing for their college entrance exams (it's expected that seniors will quit the sports teams after the summer tournaments to cram for the exams).

Up until the last half of the senior year, it's a "maximum structure, (relatively) minimum pressure" environment. And within that structure, Japanese kids often enjoy far more freedom than their American counterparts, for example, in planning their own activities and commuting to school.

This sense of "structure" in the U.S. has come to mean parents running every aspect of their children's lives. In Japan it means, "Here's the framework. You can't change the framework. But you can create whatever you want using it, and you have maximum freedom inside it."

College athletic scholarships do exist, but in far fewer numbers than the U.S. The equivalent of "March Madness" is the high school baseball tournament. As in Ace of the Diamond, high schools offer athletic scholarships too.

In Yawara, Yawara rejects a judo scholarship to a prestigious university because she's sick of judo and wants to be a "normal" teenager. But in Chihayafuru, Chihaya is delighted to learn that some schools offer karuta scholarships because she has little passion for schoolwork.

Interestingly, this nostalgia for high school is not nearly so intense about college, even though once having made it though the entrance exams gauntlet, university life in Japan is "minimum structure, minimum pressure." Until the senior year, that is, when the job hunt begins.

Maybe that 's because "real life" is looming there over the horizon. (Some high schools even ban their students from having part-time jobs.)

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