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Friday, April 6, 2001

MATTER OF COURSE

WELCOME TO FIRST GRADE!

Celebrating the start of school's long journey


The new school year in Japan begins in April, when schools across Japan welcome incoming first-graders with a special entrance ceremony, or nyugaku-shiki. Few life events rank as high in importance in Japan as entering elementary school. The transition to ichinen-sei (first-grader) is marked not only with an official entrance ceremony but also with family celebrations and gifts. Becoming an ichinen-sei also brings new privileges and responsibilities.

Although yochien (kindergarten) is not part of compulsory education in Japan, most children, particularly in urban areas, spend two or three years in yochien. But in Japan, the difference between kindergarten and first grade is vast.

Children in yochien are brought to and from school by a parent. They eat a packed lunch. After school they aren't allowed to come and go as they please. When traveling with a parent on public transportation, they don't even pay a fare. Although more yochien have introduced academic lessons to satisfy parents' demands for accelerated learning, kindergarten has traditionally been a place for play and socialization, not study.

In contrast, first-graders make their own way to and from school and must eat the hot lunch provided by the school. After school, they enjoy far more freedom than 6-year-olds in other countries, allowed to go by themselves to the park or a friend's house. They pay the child's fare when using trains and buses. For many Japanese children, first grade is the introduction to academic study.

Given the importance of the step up to first grade, a fair amount of preparation is involved. Parents and children alike dress up for the school entrance ceremony. For the children, families will often shell out significant sums for entirely new outfits: dresses for girls, suits for boys.

In addition, every child is presented with a sturdy leather backpack called a randoseru, intended to last the full six years of elementary school. This is a good thing because a randoseru will set the family back another small fortune, costing a minimum of 20,000 yen and as much as 50,000 yen.

Often, the randoseru will be a gift from the child's grandparents. By tradition, boys use black backpacks and girls use red ones, but it is becoming more common to see randoseru in alternative colors, including green, pink and navy blue. Some families are eschewing the traditional design, which features a cumbersome latch on the bottom, in favor of a new type that closes on the front.

Many families also use the occasion to buy a quality wood desk that may be used throughout the child's school career. If one set of grandparents has purchased the backpack, the other is likely to buy the desk.

With all these new purchases, it is no wonder that the new crop of first-graders are affectionately referred to as pika-pika no ichinen-sei, or "brand-new first-graders." But pika-pika means "clean and shiny," so it is more the kids' fresh-faced enthusiasm that earns them this moniker.

Outfitted in their best clothes and a shiny new backpack, children set off to school with one or both parents for the entrance ceremony. The gates of the school will be decorated with a calligraphy banner that welcomes the incoming families and provides a perfect background for obligatory rounds of photo-taking.

In most schools, the ceremony is a formal but happy affair. Once parents of the incoming students have been seated in the gymnasium, the new first-graders file into the room. The principal, the PTA chair and perhaps a representative of the school board will make brief speeches. They will encourage students to be cheerful and cooperative and get along with others.

After the speeches, current students may perform a song or two to welcome the incoming first-graders. Usually, everyone sings the school song.

Once the ceremony is over, the new first-graders and their parents go to the classrooms to meet the homeroom teachers. After a brief welcome, they receive school supplies to put in their new backpacks. The children head home with their parents, but from the next school day they are considered grown up enough to make their own way to and from school.

If you know a family with a child who is entering first grade, you might offer the parents the traditional words of congratulation: "Go-nyugaku omedeto gozaimasu" ("Congratulations on [your child's] entering school.").

Some people make small gifts to the child of pencils or other school supplies. If you ask, stores will wrap the gift and attach a special white band of paper called a noshigami. Although noshigami are available for all occasions, the one for a school entrance gift will bear the congratulatory message "Nyugaku iwai."

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.


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