Author Archives: Seira Tanaka

Throwing Eggs and Flour — Japanese High School Graduation

In Japan, there is a custom whereby the graduating students of a high school, after the graduation ceremony is over, run into the main courtyard and throw eggs and flour at each other.

My informant spent most of her life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, and participated in this custom at the end of her three years at Shuri School. She said that all except the dullest of students participated, and that there were always a few students assigned each year to buy the eggs and flour for the entire graduating class. They’d throw indiscriminately until everyone was covered in doughy gunk. Friends would oftentimes chase each other around. My informant said that it must have been the freest time of her life, and a time she couldn’t look back to without nostalgia. There was all the anticipation and excitement for the future, she said, and she remembered how freely everyone was laughing, so incredibly happy if only because, deep down inside, they knew they’d be leaving each other soon. In a way, this custom would be the last ritual of high school they would be able to exercise.

But how had this custom come about? My informant said that it was probably because the graduates wanted to celebrate their new-found freedom from the school system. Japanese schools are traditionally very strict about their dress codes, requiring uniforms from pre-school on to the end of high school. The uniforms come to define the students by the school they go to, and are symbolic of their obedience and compliance to the educational systems of Japanese society. Many students, even back in the seventies when my informant when to high school, must have felt some frustration for these rules, and for the lack of freedom that this allowed their individuality. In most schools, my informant said, there were and still are, rules about the length of girls’ hair, and the color of students’ socks. Therefore, throwing eggs and flour after the graduation ceremony and ruining (if only temporarily) the uniforms that had defined them for three years is a form of modest, socially acceptable rebellion–all in good fun, the students’ way of saying to their teachers and to the school, we don’t need to listen to you anymore! Since there’s probably nothing that causes more of a mess and is as easily obtained as eggs and flour, this exact custom had come about.

Strangely enough, when I was telling one of my Korean friends about this custom, he told me that his friends in a Korean high school had done the exact same thing upon their graduation. It seems, then, to be a custom in some or all parts of Korea as well. Perhaps this custom is something that runs as a common thread between Asian countries because of the widespread use of school uniforms, and strict school policies. Similar to the way that American high school graduates throw their caps in the air after their graduation as a small form of rebellion and show of their independence, Japanese and Korean students throw eggs and flour at each other to mark their freedom from the uniforms that had defined them for most of their youth.




Eating The People On Your Hand — Japanese Folk Belief

In Japan, students nervous for a presentation are often told to draw the Chinese character for “person,” 「人」three times on their hand. They are then supposed to pretend to eat those “people” by putting their hand in front of their mouth, in the belief that this will ease their anxiety.

My informant spent most of her life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, where her mother informed her of this folk belief when she was in middle school, preparing to give a speech in front of her whole class. Her mother drew three broad, sweeping 「人」characters on her hand and said, “now eat them.” The idea was that those three 「人」characters represented the audience in the palm of her hand, and eating them made them seem irrelevant, undeserving of her anxiety. My informant said, however, that it was less the actual gesture and more the fact that it invoked her mother’s continuous caring, that soothed her when she saw the characters on her hand while giving her presentation (and subsequent nerve-wracking situations after that). Because it is widely known and understood to be a prominent folk belief, she said, it gave her a sense of camaraderie with her audience–that she was connected to them even as she stood in front of the class, because she knew that many of her classmates had learned the same tactic from their parents as well.

This folk belief is influenced obviously by the Chinese characters in the Japanese language. Each Chinese character possesses a meaning independent of sentences or words, and can be used alone to convey messages and serve as symbols. The three 「人」characters, as mentioned earlier, illustrates a literal crowd in the palm of one’s hand, at once minimizing the audience and making the performer feel more in control–the palm of the hand is a very controllable space, after all. Pretending to eat the audience only empowers the performer further, by giving them an opportunity to at least fake power over their own anxieties and the judgments of others. My informant mentioned, furthermore, that in her time in the seventies, the 「人」characters on her hand had served as a kind of symbol for wishbones as well, supposed to give the performers good luck–so the characters served a double purpose.

By now this practice has become so widespread around Japanese society that, my informant said, nobody really knows where it originated from. She had heard it from her mother, who had heard it from her teacher, and so on.

Most importantly, however, this highly ritualistic gesture is something that is performed usually in anxiety-ridden situations. When one is under a great amount of stress, even half-hearted trust in a certain folk belief can be enough to soothe one’s mind immensely. My informant said that, depending on how nervous she was, the simple act of performing that gesture repeatedly could calm her down, if only by reminding her of the futility of worrying, and of her mother’s support.





交換日記 — Exchange Journals

「交換」(koukann) in Japanese means exchange, and 「日記」(nikki) means journal. Together they mean exchange journal, although, in fact, it is more of a sharing journal than anything else. In Japan, girls in the later years of elementary and early years of middle school often participate in a game of sorts, where a group of about three or four pass around a journal amongst themselves. One girl would have it in the morning, write something about her day, and give it to the next girl during lunch, who would pass it to the next girl after-school, and so on.

My informant has spent her entire life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa, among other things, is known for its stationary residents; my informant barely knows anyone that has moved houses at all in their entire lives. Because of this characteristic, she said, she spent her school years, from elementary to high school, with approximately the same group of people.「グループきつくて、友達とかも大変だったよ」are her exact words, which translates roughly to, most times, friendships were (for good or bad) claustrophobic and exclusive. In this environment, which perhaps mirrors the environment of most Japanese schools in an intensified form, my informant had 交換日記 with two of her best friends.

The 交換日記 was used mainly to tell secrets they were too afraid to say out loud, or to refer to inside jokes and stories that cemented them closer together as a group. For instance, said my informant, one of her best friends only ever openly gushed about the boy that she liked in the 交換日記, never breathing a word about it out loud. That was an unspoken rule about the 交換日記, in fact–the journal and real life existed, essentially, in two separate realms, and by some unwritten law they all knew that they couldn’t actually talk about anything that was mentioned in the journal, unless the person who wrote it brought it up herself. There were a lot of unspoken rules like that, my informant said, to make them feel like they were participating in something secret, a covert organization of some sort, although every girl around them was doing the same thing.

The style and content of the 交換日記 were highly ritualized, she said. The journal was always the same standard, seventy-page school-use notebook, the one that basically every Japanese student used, and still uses. The cover was always decorated to the utmost; in their case, they had glued sequins and glitter all over the front, and an applique of a butterfly, making it shiny and girly and unrecognizable (the butterfly, she said, was because they had inside joke about it which she has since forgotten). On the inside of the cover they had written down the rules for the 交換日記, as all exchange journal groups did. Their rules dictated that each girl had to at least draw one picture of something detailing their day in their journal entry, no girl could withhold information about a crush or a potential crush, and each entry had to be at least a page long. The most important rule consisted of having to hide the actual physical exchange of the journal from all others. Other groups made other rules, but these were theirs, and it defined their 交換日記. My informant went through six notebooks with the same group of friends before they decided to stop. She said, however, that she knew girls who would get in fights with their friends because they were participating in more than one 交換日記 with different groups of friends. The one thing about the 交換日記, she said, was that it exhibited all the drama and self-consciousness of being a pre-teen/teenage girl in Japanese society.

The 交換日記 is indeed largely reflective of the school life of girls in their elementary and middle school years. My informant grew up with the same group of people, and for the most part, the same group of close friends, as do, it seems, most Japanese children still. The 交換日記 illustrates the girls’ desire to define themselves away from the rest of the school population, to create a distinct, close-knit little society governed by its own rules. It also indicates precisely how claustrophobic the school environment can be; with these close-knit groups and their secret journal societies, how is a newcomer supposed to integrate into the school? My informer said, in fact, that it must have been very difficult to be any kind of an outsider. Get on the wrong side of your friends, and you were out–and being out meant you had to find a way into another group, which was always extremely difficult, especially with girls, my informant said, who were very territorial about these kinds of things. This seems to make sense in a homogeneous society like Japan’s, where students, eager to distinguish themselves from the crowd, create friend groups as foundations for their identity, relying on these friendships to set them apart because, in all other aspects, everyone is usually relatively similar. There were prestigious 交換日記 groups that everyone wanted to be part of, for instance. And then there were ones like the my informants’, created merely for fun and for advancement of their friendships, but still possessing an intense, intimidating undercurrent of exclusivity.


お父さん and お母さん — Japanese Folk Speech

In Japan, married couples who have children often begin to call each other 「お父さん」(otousan) and 「お母さん」(okaasan) which translates to “father” and “mother.” The apparent strangeness of this phenomenon is illuminated only when one tries to apply it to American society, where parents generally still call each other by their names or pet-names. An American mother, for instance, although she may say to her child something like, “Look, your father is over there!” would never, when speaking alone with her husband, call him “father,” just as her husband would never refer to his wife as “mother.”

My informant, who has spent her entire life in the city of Naha-shi in Okinawa, Japan, was extremely surprised when I told her of the apparent strangeness of this folk speech. Her mother has always called her husband (and my informant’s father) “father,” and her father has always called his wife “mother.” It was always perfectly natural for my informant and for everybody else in Japanese society to hear parents talking to each other as if they were each other’s children. Though they refer to each other by their names occasionally, they very rarely stray from this folk speech, which seems to characterize the relationships between most parents in Japanese society.

Though Japan has a very low divorce rate, research has shown it to have one of the highest percentages of unhappily married couples in the world. This percentage, though partly a result of women lacking the economic independence to free themselves from an unhappy marriage, also arises from the prominence of children in Japanese married life. According to my informant, many a Japanese couple, after they have children, shift towards investing their entire life and love towards their children, becoming not man and woman but “father” and “mother,” defining themselves solely by their positions as their children’s caretakers.

When my informant came on an extended visit to America, she was perplexed to see, on some American TV show, an episode when the parents leave their kids with a baby-sitter and go off on a night of their own. The concept of a baby-sitter barely even exists in Japan, where usually women serve as housewives and are always home, and where the possibility of leaving the children behind to go on a date as man and woman feels like some kind of betrayal of the family system. 「結婚したらロマンスなくなるよね〜」was what my informant’s mother had said, which, roughly translated, means You can’t expect the romance to keep going after you get married and have kids.

That parents have–always, it seems–called each other 「お父さん」 and 「お母さん」referring to themselves only as “father” and “mother” in relation to their children, seems understandable then, in the context of Japanese society. Perhaps this folk speech derives itself from the very culture and sensibilities of the Japanese people. In Japan, perhaps, nurturing children and creating a cohesive family with clearly defined roles is seen as more important and easier, perhaps, than a passionate love between parents, hence the reason why so many people disregard their names (and subsequently, perhaps even their individual identities) to adopt the generic roles of mother, and of father.



“The Lyre” — Marching Band Gossip Publication

My informant lives in Irvine, California, where she participates in the marching band at her high school. The marching band is very closely-knit, made of about a hundred and twenty people, where, she said, “everyone knows everyone and anything that happens is general knowledge in like, two seconds.” Calling themselves bandos, they form somewhat of a sub-culture in their high school, always hanging around the music building and forming their friendships and relationships oftentimes solely within the confines of the marching band.

In this closely-knit community, they have an unofficial gossip publication called “The Lyre,” which is passed out to the members on the bus on their way to performances at football games and competitions. The secret of the writers of “The Lyre” is very heavily guarded, although most people know that they consist of a group of seniors hand-picked by the seniors from the previous year. “The Lyre” is written secretly, printed secretly, and circulated amongst the band at least once every other week, containing generally about fifty pieces of gossip about goings-on within the band, whether made-up or real. The title of “The Lyre,” in fact, is a pun on the word “liar,” and so about half of the gossip is usually fake, made with the intention of being humorous. The other half though, of course, is real, and though monitored by the band director to make sure that nothing potentially offensive makes it through, it caused, my informant says, some pretty awkward situations:

“I think I’ve been in it like ten times, which is an okay number, and none of them have been too bad, except for this one time when they uh, paired me up as a joke with this junior guy who I actually really liked, and I think the guy knew I liked him too. I was a freshman and he was a junior so obviously, you know, it was pretty hopeless and sad. Anyway, everyone always pokes fun at the people who are on The Lyre so they teased us about it for the rest of the football game, like making us stand next to each other in the performance arc and stuff, and since Winter Formal was coming up, they kept teasing me to ask him to formal, which I actually really wanted to do, but then now that they’d said it I didn’t want to do it anymore obviously, because they’d think it was a joke or something. And the writers of the Lyre would feel so freakin’ important. So yeah. They had a whole shitload of control.

A piece of gossip would be presented with the initials of those involved (which were usually very easily recognizable, especially if you were the only one in the band with those initials), like this:

KL and DJ have been seen spotted frolicking off-campus for lunch. Sure didn’t look like they were “just friends” when they were sharing ice cream in the Crossroads the other day.

The fake ones were generally very obviously fake:

SM has had flowers growing on her head for the past week! Who planted it, and who’s watering it? It continues to be a mystery.

Nobody took “The Lyre” very seriously, however, and it was always somewhat of a joke, something light and funny to read on the long bus rides to football games and competitions. “It probably came from how close we all were,” She said. “I think if any other club or group did this, it probably would never have worked out. People would’ve gotten offended or something, and there would’ve been drama. But we all knew each other so well, and so these little things never mattered to us, it was all just funny. And it was also a way to get closer too, through like, shared pain and embarrassment, or something. It’s like, a place to cultivate our inside jokes and isolate ourselves even more from the rest of school. [Laughing] It’s such a cultish thing to do, but it was so fun.”