Motomachi Undokai

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I wrote this article for a newsletter which is circulated around the offices where my husband works…….

This autumn we experienced our first undokai, (sports festival), at our sons’ school: Motomachi elementary.  There were weeks of preparation before the event which was held in the school yard on a Saturday. Although our sons had been involved with school sports’ days in the UK, the undokai is serious stuff and far more impressive than sports’ day in England.

It is a whole-school event demonstrating the hard work of every teacher and child, and it is a real display of the pupils’ teamwork and individual efforts.

 

At the start of the undokai, the pupils march onto the yard to accompanying music from the loudspeakers. The three teams – yellow, red and blue are introduced.

 

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There then follows the whole-year displays. Our boys had been practising hard at home and were very excited to be performing in front of everyone. Our youngest son, in ninensei, (grade 2), took part in a gymnastic routine that was choreographed by the grade 2 senseis. Each yeargroup performed a different routine and our eldest son, in gonensei, (grade 5) danced the Soran Bushi, a powerful traditional dance and song from Hokkaido that represents fishermen.

 

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The grade 6 children performed a drum routine from Okinawa. It was all very impressive.

Across the school yard was hung bunting which the children has worked hard to make as wonderful as possible.

Unfortunately, the rain began to fall and so the day cancelled just before lunch and so we ate our obentos at home and the rest of the undokai was rescheduled for the following Tuesday morning.

Thankfully the sun shone that day and once again the score board was affixed to a high balcony and the games played on. At one end of the playground the teachers ran an efficient set of races for the first graders, then second graders with every child taking part in a 100m dash. There was a starting gun which didn’t faze most of the children, and even the first graders were taught how to start a race properly with races abandoned if a child took a false start.

The older children ran longer races, and after the races were finished there was a final session of co-operative games which settled the final scores.

The ninenseis had to battle it out in their teams with each team throwing beanbags into a tall beacon-shaped net. The team with the largest score won. Gonenseis took part in another traditional undokai pursuit of the Kibasen or chivalry battle, where kids ride horses (other team-mates) and try to take the cap off their opposing rider.  It was great fun and very exciting to watch.


 

Oh my word, what a great experience it was. So professional and everyone was so dedicated.

We caused some upset by taking the boys out of school for two weeks in the lead-up to the Undokai – leaving them with only one week to prepare on their return. (I think routines were practiced for three weeks before we went away: a lot of effort.) Dan’s HR received a testy phonecall about the situation, which I felt awful about. Thankfully the wonderful HR lady fought our corner and reassured the school.

I was blown away by the production values. A PA system pumped out motivational music during the races and cheerleading gangs chivvied on the participants. So fab.

Very unlike the half-hearted tokenism that is an English sports day. I have high-hopes for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics if their Undokai is anything to go by!

On a personal note, a group of us English speaking Mums was able to muddle around and find each other which led to a nice coffee morning a week or two later.

 

 

 

Poor Old Whitehaven Academy

I have a blogpost in the brewing about this year’s school sports day, here in Motomachi, but I am interrupting my daily kanji learning to blog about the school cultures here in Japan and in the UK in light of Warren Turner’s apparent resignation as head of Whitehaven Academy.

The background to Whitehaven Academy is that is was turned into an academy and Bright Tribe, a Multi Academy Trust, (MAT) were the sponsors. They let the buildings get in a terrible state, their staffing levels left a lot to be desired meaning children studying GCSEs were often without subject-proficient teachers and took lots of money from the UK government with very little to show for it here in Whitehaven. In September a Panorama tv programme highlighted the corruption of MATs who run many secondary and primary schools in England and highlighted irregularities found in Bright Tribe.

Through the campaigning efforts of parents and the local MP Bright Tribe have relinquished control of Whitehaven and a new, local, MAT is in the process of taking over. All good. But sadly, it seems as though the head teacher who really was well-respected and tried his hardest for the kids of Whitehaven has felt he has to resign. This seems to be the way the new MAT likes new acquisitions – with a new head who can be moulded into shape and be a true ambassador for the MAT.

And this is where it is all wrong. The education of pupils should be a community effort, not a corporate one.

Here in Japan, for all its failings, (and many parents are not adequately happy with public elementary schools here and enrol their children into cram schools too), the schools are run by local school boards. The city boards’ schools work together to share best practice and ensure parity for all children. The teachers are all highly trained (as opposed to some of the international private schools where you can teach without training). Yes, I know Japan is an extreme example of a homogenous community, but it is a very comfortable community to be a part of.

Headteachers in England have the pressure from government of performing well in league tables – in primary education it’s SAT results, (important because if they underperform they then become a target for becoming an MAT and there goes some/most of their autonomy), and at secondary level it’s the Progress Eight scores. Then, as heads in MATs have extra pressure to stay ‘on message’ and do the Trust’s bidding, another tier of pressure is added to an already stressful job.

I really do fear for the pupils we are churning out in English state schools. Their education is politicised and monetised and I do not think we are producing better-educated souls as a result.

Ideally, I would like to see all schools come back under the control of a well-funded LEA, led by people who understand education and pedagogy and who can produce community spirited, educated young adults. But so much needs to change for that to happen. Sighs.

Anyway, I’d better get back to my Kanji flashcards. Oliver is at Motomachi elementary right now (Saturday!), taking part in an earthquake emergency training session. Hubby and youngest are sat in the Italian Gardens, reading. I’m meant to be finishing my kanji learning and I got distracted.

 

It’s a New Term and a New Boo-Boo

Yes, we’re talking another episode of ‘King Family Disappointing the School’.

Poor Dan hasn’t had time off work since coming to the UK in April to help us clear out of the rented place after the fire and bring us out to Japan. Not the most relaxing week or two of his life. The boys and I went back to England, fleetingly – for just over two weeks, in August so that we could get our eyes checked, visit the dentist and so that George could go to his Razzamatazz summer school. We also had a lovely few days on the south coast visiting Parkin family. Anyway, before the kids broke up from school, we wrote in their communications books that we’d be taking them out of school for two weeks. (We’ll be visiting a rice farm during harvest, then exploring Osaka and Kyoto and Okinawa). The teachers wrote replies saying that this was ok.

Fast forward to today and Dan writes another nudge note in the comms book reminding the teachers that we’ll be away.

Then, after lunch, there is an email from the lovely lady from HR to say that the school had telephoned her and that they were shocked and concerned about the boys missing the preparation for Sports Day. (Which is happening on the Saturday, a week after our return from holiday). Thankfully the  WONDERFUL HR lady knows us well and is married to an American, (and so can see the foibles of Japanese school culture), and blagged it for us saying it was part of our homeschool programme and that the boys would continue with their prep for sports day whilst we were away. Anyway, I felt awful again. I do hate to disappoint the school, and if they had raised concerns about the block of time before the school holidays we could have altered things, perhaps.

Well, I then went to the Daiso (100yen shop) and bought what was on the list AND some of the very-tasty-full-of-artificial-colours-and-sour-Octopus-jelly-sweets and came home and now feel a little bit better.

This is the Soran Bushi dance that Oliver has to practise and that he’ll be performing on Sports Day. He’s been practising at home off his own bat, which has been really lovely as dance isn’t normally his thing. But he’s enjoying this, which is great. (Another credit to Motomachi school for that).

Back to School

We had a rather hectic fortnight in the UK at the end of August visiting friends and relatives and getting George to and from his Razzamatazz summer school. Sadly the UK’s heatwave had waved away so it was the usual grey chilly summer weather that I expect of Cumbria.

Right now I am shirking from the job of hanging out the washing on our balcony. I’ve just updated my LinkedIn profile. (Why?!) And am waiting for some actually caffeinated coffee to brew. (Again, why? I’ve been off caffeine for months now.) It’s a crazy morning.

Today is Disaster Training Day. Dan has it at work and the boys are doing it at school too. I have to go and pick them up at 11.20 as if there’s been a massive earthquake. (Remember to take slippers and PTA ID badge, though).

The boys have been back at school for one week and only mornings at that. I think it’s been a really good reintroduction to school life. That plus the AWESOME school party that was held last Saturday. We didn’t know what to expect, and Dan was wanting us to go to see the last of the summer fireworks at Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, where there would be large crowds of Japanese in their finery. But we were knackered from the jet lag and the boys had been griping about being back in Japan and having to go to school so I didn’t want a late night.

Anyway, we went and it was ace. There were food stalls and lucky dip type stalls and dancing, drumming and singing, and folks in their finery too. And there was a beer tent. Everyone was happy.

Bread and Circuses (or School Dinners and Japanese Theatre)

Quiet, Sophisticated Dining

Not surprisingly, this does not refer to the school dinners. Usually I meet Dan and a selection of his colleagues for lunch. At the start of June our numbers were depleted as Jermain san was on holiday and Paul san was in Hitachi city. So Dan, Sesheimo san and I had a couple of quieter lunches, the most memorable of which was at a French restaurant where I had my first ever galette. It was flavoured with blue cheese, pink peppercorns and honey. We ate outside and had beautiful views of the Yokohama wheel.

I’d first read about galettes in a book I read in October called ‘Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather’ set in Quebec. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17120581-fish-change-direction-in-cold-weather It’s a sweet book, I recommend it. The following day I had the school lunch to look forward to. Below are some snaps I took around Motomachi, where the school is situated.

 

School Dinners

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Armed with my slippers in a bag, my 260yen for lunch and a red PTA lanyard from the 100yen shop, I arrived at the school at the correct time. Go me.

Of course I hadn’t realised that there would be an hour-long presentation from the head of health and hygiene at the school about how the lunches are prepared.

It was all in Japanese but thankfully there were pictures too, but I did get more from the experience when an English speaker mother whose daughter is in Oliver’s class came over and explained some of it to me.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • All meals are made on site in the school kitchens.
  • They are making meals for over 600 people, (pupils and staff combined).
  • All meals are made from scratch, including broths. Recent changes to the amount of salt allowed in the meals means that more effort has to go into flavouring the broths, and ideally these would be simmered over a longer period, but due to time constraints they are not as flavourful as the staff would like. But it’s a compromise.
  • The staff take stringent measures to prevent against cross-contamination. Not only do they use separate knives and boards for different foods, but also different aprons, gloves and face masks. Wow.
  • There was a problem with waste at the school but after giving a presentation to the students about how hard the cooks work to ensure the children get tasty and healthy meals, the amount of waste has been drastically reduced.
  • Staff from Kamakura district education board were attending the presentation in order to learn from what Yokohama are doing. Yokohama must be a beacon of yumminess.

Finally, the presentation was over, and after washing our hands we lined up for our lunch.

PQ%9g9FYSICiIdfqk+UWZgIt was delicious. Except for the milk, which was just odd. I’m not a big milk drinker at the best of times, but I closed my eyes and sucked it up and then I could focus on the other elements of the meal: bread roll flavoured with cheese (yum); spaghetti bolognaise; cabbage salad and melon. Yum, yum, yum and yum.

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Theatre trip

That week also had Oliver going on a school trip to the theatre, which us parents were also invited to. So I walked through Nogai to the theatre and saw some new bits of Yokohama including this Art and Architecture library/ cafe, which I filed away to visit a later time.

I also clocked these bars along the banks of the canal that looked artistically seedy and so took this snap of them.

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I’ve never been to a Japanese theatre before, and apart from he decor, it was very similar to a British (modern) theatre. l+BOjgKiRHar+TZTkFIBRQ

When the curtain went up there were three gentlemen in Kimonos who came onto stage and played percussion instruments.

IMG_2133 Then a lady came on stage and played the shamisen. She played two or three tunes, including one western one which was familiar to me mainly through campfire singing at Guides. (‘Mary Had some Marmalade’ and ‘Jonny was a Parachuter’). There were three schools at the theatre, all of the kids were in the 5th grade. Two kids from each school were invited up on stage to have a go with the percussion whilst the shamisen player played alongside.

There was an interval, then one of the gentlemen came onstage and told a story.

IMG_2132 After this, the tone changed completely and a lady dressed in sparkly high heels, a split skirt and witchy get-up came on to do some magic.This bit was rather bizarre. The magic wasn’t that great either.

This was followed by another Japanese story telling session.

Quite an experience. Glad I went.

Shogaku – 小学. The boys are back in school.

I thought I had done most of the shopping for the boys’ start of school by Saturday, and true, on Sunday there was only a couple of things outstanding. Then we labelled. That was a lot of fun.

I lie.

But, the upshot is that we all now know how to write the boys’ names in katakana and their pants are named so I don’t have to be rooting around looking at what age is on the label. (A wee bugbear.)

Monday morning. The boys are excited. The randoseru, (backpacks) are packed.

We are to be at the school at 8am to meet with Lin-sensei, the head of the international classroom. I think I’m going to refer to it as a unit though.

At Kenilworth school there were units – the deaf unit and the behavioural unit. (There weren’t any units at BSG and that made me sad. Because we all know that to be in the top 16% you cannot be deaf or have any emotional issues. Mmm.)
Dan didn’t make it past the genkan, (area where you doff your shoes), and was shooed away. It was all a bit of a blur. I had more forms to fill in and things to order.

The boys were made welcome by their classmates and teachers, who both seem nice. Oliver’s in particular is lovely. He is lucky because he has a girl in his class, Erica, who can speak English, (she’s Japanese though). I did spot a slightly European-looking kid in George’s class but George said that none of the kids spoke English. That mystery was solved today by me bumping into a tall Caucasian who introduced himself as the boy’s dad and he is Norwegian. So this Dad goes into school once a week to teach his son Norwegian. Cool.

I was in George’s classroom during the music lesson and they sang BINGO (in Nihongo) and I joined in in English which was great fun and earned me some kudos among the kids! I was hoping to be around at lunch time but I was dismissed by 10.30. Oliver is wanting me to stay but really, there’s not much I am doing of any worth.

So for some lessons they are in the unit, where they are getting intensive Japanese (Nihongo) support but otherwise they are in their classrooms. Oliver’s class has 36 kids, but the rooms seem big enough and I really don’t think it’s an issue.

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I was told by George’s teacher that I need to make a mat for when they do art.

So I did that the Monday night. I also needed an empty 5kg rice bag for putting his flower pot in. So Dan sourced one of those from his colleagues and brought it back yesterday.

I also needed to go shopping yesterday for a yellow bandana for when Oliver does Home Ec (Friday), and a new, washable facemask. He will be able to take the apron made by the lovely folk in Montana, who belong to a Christian community,  (their name escapes me) which was gifted by Fiona.

IMG_1339The boys are enjoying their lunches. I have been told that George needs to adjust his grip when using a spoon. George went back for seconds on Monday. On Friday it will be George’s turn to be serving lunch to the others. Exciting.

Oliver said yesterday that he is loving school. George is having a whale of a time. Yesterday he was having his PE lesson and I sneaked this shot of them all listening to the teacher. Note the caps which are reversible – you get one red team and one white team.

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School

This morning we need to go and buy a thermometer. Part of the paperwork that took NINETY minutes to complete yesterday, (with an interpreter), was writing down the kids’ average body temperature. Both the international teacher, Lin-sensai, and our interpreter, (a lovely lady from Dan’s HR department), were shocked that I didn’t know this off the top of my head. So today we buy a thermometer and start taking readings.

The orientation session yesterday was long. I need to set-up a bank account: in order to do this I need to create a seal. Woah. I need to take some paperwork over to Naka ward office today, and at some point we need to buy all the bits and bobs for Monday morning. It was a hard ninety minutes but I held it together until we got out. Really overwhelmed. And Oliver was being difficult.

As it happens, next week the teachers are carrying out home visits for all the pupils in the afternoons so the boys will only be going in for morning session and lunch.

I’ll be going in with them for that first week. Both the boys are upbeat and excited. Turns out Oliver will be going on a residential camp in June at a peninsular where they’ll be fishing and kayaking and suchlike.

So the photos. The school itself looks run-down in comparison to British primary schools. It reminds me of schooling from the 1960s. Or maybe earlier. But they WILL learn some Japanese!