If you’re a parent in Japan, I’d like to tell you about a few lessons I learned the hard way related to Japanese preschools:
1. If you want to go to a private preschool, call the school the day your baby is born because there are incredibly long waiting lists. A lot of parents seem to try to plan their delivery dates so that the child is born early in the year to get ahead on the waiting list. Our son was born in September, and by the time we got around to applying for a preschool in November, we were number 25 on the waiting list.
2. The reason you want to call a private preschool is because if the one my son goes to is typical, public preschools are insane:
a) They take my son’s temperature three times a day. If it’s over 37.5 in the morning (my parenting books says that’s the upper limit of a normal temperature) he is not accepted, and if at any time it goes over 38 we have to pick him up, even if it goes back down a few minutes later (which it often does).
b) Every time he sneezes or gets a pimple on his little toe, they insist we take him to the doctor, even though the doctor rolls his eyes every time he sees us and says, “Wow, your pre-school is really strict.” They have also rejected kids even when the doctor gave permission for them to go back.
c) They don’t seem to understand the concept of “day care,” because they’re constantly accusing my wife of being a bad mother when she works overtime or applies for extended-hours daycare.
d) One teacher got angry at my wife for speaking English to my son because she claims he doesn’t understand Japanese as well as the other kids (ignoring that fact that he was the second-youngest in the class).
e) They’re constantly telling us how to raise our child.
f) They give us lectures when we’re (literally) five minutes late picking him up.
Other reasons that I wish we’d gotten into the private preschool near my apartment are that their opening hours are much longer, they let you drop off your child any time during the day (making it much easier to take him to the doctor and letting you use a half- rather than a full-day off), they’re just generally a lot more flexible.
But then again, if we’d gotten into the private preschool, my son wouldn’t have gotten to wear this cool disaster hat after the March 11 earthquake, so I guess that’s something.
I’ve been wanting to attend a school sports day for years, but I was always afraid that a lone foreigner taking photos would be looked on more than a little suspiciously at one of these events. Now that I’ve got a baby of my own, I was finally able to attend, and it was no disappointment.
Back in Canada, sports day was just a bunch of boring sack races and hurdle events, but Japanese sports days are far more fun.
The kids do really cute dances, and the teachers have obviously really gone the extra mile to make their costumes and props for the races.
Actually, there seemed to be some people at the event who weren’t parents, so I guess I could have gone to one years ago if I wanted.
Most sports days are held in May, September, and October.
This is the annual festival at my son’s preschool and was held on July 17. I thought it was kind of strange to have an Obon festival in July because the Obon holidays are in August, but apparently, the festival gets celebrated at different times in Japan.
In Tokyo and Tohoku (northern Japan), it’s celebrated in July and is called “Shichigatsu Bon” (literally July Bon), but in Kansai and most other areas, it’s called “Hachigatsu Bon” (August Bon) and is celebrated on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of August. The reason is that it was originally based on the lunar calendar, and when Japan converted to the Gregorian calendar, some regions kept celebrating it on the old dates while others switched it to the modern calendar. In fact, there are even a few places that still celebrate kyu-bon (the old Obon), so it falls on a different day every year depending on the moon.
I really enjoyed the dancing and other events, and if you’re ever walking by a preschool and you see a festival going on, you should definitely stop in because it’s really photogenic. All the kids dress up in yukata and jinbei, and they’re really cute when they dance.
Japan has some of the most amazing dolls in the world, and when I went to visit my wife’s family during Golden Week, I was surprised to see that one of the rooms in the house had been taken over by an enormous display of gogatsu ningyo (literally ‘May dolls’) in honor of my new son.
The official name of the holiday being celebrated is Kodomo no Hi, or Children’s Day, and it comes on May 5th, every year, but it used to be called Tango no sekku, and was originally just for boys. The festival is centuries old, and no one knows exactly where it came from or how it originated, but there are some theories here.
These are irises, the flower that gives the festival its old name, Shobu no Sekku. Irises were used in purifying rituals, and because the word for iris, shobu, sounds like the word for military spirit, it also became associated with samurai virtues.
If you ever have a chance to get out to a small, local festival near where you live, you’ll probably find that they can be surprisingly entertaining. This kid’s dancing festival is held in Higashi-Omiya, a tiny station north of Tokyo every August. They have kids from the local dance schools perform, and I find watching little four-year-olds dancing to Hip Hop songs with lyrics about “bitches,” “ho’s,” and explicitly sexual language endlessly entertaining.
Tokyo’s Nishirokugo Koen, better known as Tire Koen, is about the most unusual park I’ve ever seen. Most of the equipment is built out of old tires, and there are Godzillas, rocket ships, and giant robots.
Getting there: Tire Koen is Ota Ward, almost in Kawasaki. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from Kamata Station on the JR Keihin Tohoku Line. Go out of the West Exit, and turn left. Walk south, going past a Tokyu Store on the left, and then a 7-11 and McDonald’s on the right. Walk south about ten minutes keeping the tracks on your left, and you’ll come to park.
Address: 2-1-1 Kamata Honmachi, Ota-ku. Tel. 03-5713－1118
Website: http://www.city.ota.tokyo.jp/midokoro/park/nishirokkugou_taiya_kouen/index.html (Japanese only)
Hina doll at Awashima Jinja in Wakayama prefecture. Many Japanese people believe that dolls have souls, so instead of throwing them in the garbage, they take them to a shrine where they are blessed and ritually burned or thrown into the sea.
Other posts with pictures of Awashima Jinja:
I don’t want this to turn into a baby blog, but Japan does have some interesting baby customs that I’d like to write about.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife got out her old calligraphy set from junior high school to make a meimeisho (Japanese: 命名書）. When a baby is seven days old, many Japanese families have a ceremony called a shichiya (Japanese: 七夜）where the baby is officially named and they write one of these posters with the baby’s new name on it.
This is my baby’s name, Matthew. In Japanese, it’s pronounced Mashuu. It’s not a real Japanese name, but people often use “ateji,” which are characters that phonetically represent foreign or native words. The character we chose for “ma” is “miyabi,” which means “elegance” or “refinement.” Since he was born in fall, we chose “aki” for “shuu,” which is the character for “autumn.”
I was a little worried about giving him a foreign-sounding name, but it seems that unusual or foreign-sounding names are becoming somewhat more common these days, and the characters can also be pronounced as “Masaaki,” which is a common Japanese name, if he decides he doesn’t like Mashuu.
Here’s the finished product. I’m no calligraphy expert, but I think my wife did a really nice job.
The meimeisho is usually displayed in a family shrine or over the baby’s crib, or given as a present to the person who named the child. You can buy them at a stationery store for just a few hundred yen.
At the top right is Matthew’s footprint. His name is in the center, and at the right is his date and time of birth – Sept. 8, 2009 at 1:12 AM.
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