What’s Up with School Culture Festivals in Japan?

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Photo by S Ehlers

Every school in Japan has a series of events throughout the year that provide us hard-working teachers with an occasional welcome distraction from the daily grind.

However, some of these events can often seem mysterious to us, in a uniquely Japanese way. Events such as sports day, parents’ day (when you may be asked to work on a Saturday to give demonstration lessons) or the entrance-slash-graduation festivals have quite obvious reasons. Indeed, if you are from outside Japan, then your home country probably has similar events at its schools.

However, the bunkasai (culture festival) is something on a whole different level. I can’t really think of any similar events that took place at my school in Scotland when I was growing up.

What is bunkasai?

Yes, bunkasai translates as culture festival, but in truth, that’s a rather simplistic way to look at it. Bunkasai is about more than just culture. It’s an opportunity for your school to place its best qualities and personality squarely before an audience. It is a chance for students to take what they have learned in their lessons this year and use it to create a performance for their parents, teachers and peers, and in some cases, the public.

The exact nature of what goes on at a bunkasai can vary considerably from school to school. For example, the junior high school where I currently work has a heavy focus on the performing arts. So, my students love nothing better than singing and dancing, with each class putting on their own 20- to 30-minute, highly choreographed mini concert.

Photo by Victoria Vlisides

An example of decorations made by the students for a high school bunkasai.

Other schools may take a different tack. For example, when I was working in Osaka City my school in Taisho ward took a far simpler approach. The festival basically consisted of inviting parents to view displays of the students’ work throughout the year, followed by a short concert in which each class performed their own song. Some of them even sang in English, which was quite impressive.

Perhaps this is the one thing about bunkasai that we, as non-Japanese who have never actually performed in one, can’t fully appreciate: the level of effort, time and energy — hours upon hours of preparation — that go into preparing what is, in the end, a one-day event that only lasts for a few hours.

Bunkasai are one of those quirky, uniquely Japanese events that we, as ALTs are given the privilege of enjoying.

It’s hard to put an exact figure on just how many hours of labor go into preparing for these events, but certainly, from my own experience, ALTs can expect to have their schedules disrupted for at least three or four weeks before the event, as classes are cancelled left, right and center to allow students time to practice and prepare.

I’ve read a lot of comments on various blogs and social media forums over the years of people complaining about what a waste of time and energy such events are. However, I believe that to take such a negative view is to fundamentally miss the point of what these events are all about.

Japanese students are encouraged to take great pride in their school, in their class and in the team ethic to which all their classmates subscribe. Having the best banner, the best display and the best performance on the day of the event isn’t just a matter of personal pride — it’s an affirmation of your place in your school. Something that the entire class will take tremendous pride in.

When is it?

In most cases, these events are held in November. Typically, they are designed to coincide with the Culture Day national holiday that usually takes place on Nov. 3. Typically, many festivals are held on the nearest Saturday to this date, which in 2017 is Nov. 4.

However, depending on your particular school, like a junior high versus a high school, they may hold it a couple of weeks before or after this date, or even in the warmer summer months before break. There are some schools, such as those I used to work for in Chiba, who dispense with this tradition altogether and hold their bunkasai event in the summer or autumn (though this is unusual).

Photo by Victoria Vlisides

Some schools even have matching t-shirts.

Much like the school sports day, however, you will notice a uniformity among all the schools in your town, with most (if not all) having bunkasai on the same day or at least in the same week. Generally, the older you go with your age groups, the more elaborate the culture fest is likely to be. I’ve attended elementary and junior high bunkasai that have a very simple, yet none the less charming, flea market or church fête feel to them.

Compare this with the extravaganza at Doshisa University that I was invited to a couple of years ago. That event took up an entire university campus, which I would estimate was at least a few square kilometers. They had everything from live music to local food delicacies, dance shows to a fashion parade. It felt more like a summer matsuri (festival) than it did an event organized by local students.

How does all this affect the ALT?

Well, really, your level of involvement depends not only on your own personal enthusiasm, but also on the willingness of your school and (if you’re a dispatch company worker), the willingness of your company to let you get involved.

Almost certainly, taking full part in the bunkasai will necessitate working on a Saturday, which even if you are willing to do so, may not be included in the contract between you or your company and the local board of education.

Photo by Victoria Vlisides

Dorian Cervantes, a JET loved by many in his community, marvels at the decorations at a high school bunkasai.

If you are asked to work during the festivities, don’t forget that you are entitled to a compensatory day off. Be wary when discussing this, as some schools may expect you to attend voluntarily rather than in a working capacity. May sure you know if it is considered a working day or not before you decide one way or another.

But even if you aren’t able to attend the event itself, there’s still plenty you can do to get involved.

Go and watch your students practicing if your class with them has been cancelled. Offer support and encouragement. Ask your Japanese teachers of English (JTE) and your vice-principal where and how you can help with preparations. It may be something as simple as moving some chairs around, helping to set up sound equipment or taking some photos. Whatever you do, the effort will be noticed and it will be appreciated — not just by your superiors but also by your school.

Above all else: relax and enjoy. Bunkasai are one of those quirky uniquely Japanese events that we, as ALTs, are given the privilege of enjoying. Be sure to make full use of that opportunity.

What’s the coolest performance or project you’ve seen at a culture festival? Let us know in the comments!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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