Handmade shoe and apron bags made by the author.

April in Japan brings with it warmer temperatures, cherry blossoms, and the beginning of a new school year.

Children who are entering first grade, which is the first year of elementary school here, have a lot to prepare. Many of the items are the same as what school children in the rest of the world need: pencils, erasers, a pencil box, notebooks. But some are peculiar, if not to Japan, than at least to earthquake prone regions.

Take for instance the 防災頭巾 (bousaizukin) or emergency, cushion-y headgear—that doubles as a seat cushion most of the time—which children keep on their desk chairs to use in case of an earthquake. Then there is the obligatory ランドセル, randoseru, a hard-backed leather backpack that every elementary child in the country somehow manages to purchase, in spite of the daunting price tag. (I checked this year, and the cheapest one I found was $200 US.)



Purchasing the randoseru has become a sort of rite of passage. It is featured in several songs about starting first grade. Yes, there are even songs about it! It is that big of a deal. One line that comes to mind goes something like this, “when the cherry petals fall like rain then I will have a shiny new randoseru.”

But another rite of passage requires waiting for the mothers of these 一年生, first graders. Because the gym clothes, indoor shoes, and apron a student wears when distributing school lunch (yes, the kids are in charge of doing this,) need bags to go in. And even though it is not always required, most of the time, mothers make these at home.

It is cathartic, in a way, the hours spent with the steady soft tap of the sewing machine, as the 春一番, first wind of spring, blows the winter away and brings spring into the home and heart. You choose a color and fabric you know your child will like; adjust the straps according to their size, perhaps with a little room to grow, and you reflect on just how it came to be that the little baby who suckled at your breast is now old enough to be flung upon the big, scary world beyond your control.

On the first day of school, there is a formal Entrance Ceremony. Children wear blazers and white-collared shirts, neckties and short pants for boys, fluffy skirts and bows around the neck for girls. Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa, everyone dresses up and comes to school for the big occasion. Without fail, there will be a cherry tree and a sign adorned with calligraphy at the gate, a picture perfect setting ready and waiting for the new entrants.

The ceremony itself is long and yawn-inducing but the intention behind it, of ushering these young beings from the world of infancy into that of childhood, is sweet and dear. The children stand, scared to death and suddenly seeming so very, very small, on that large stage while the world around them acknowledges that now, at last, they are big boys and girls.

How do you celebrate your children’s debut into the world of formal education?

The image used in this post is credited to the author.

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

More Posts