It’s midsummer: school holidays. You drive past school at 7pm. How many cars are there in the staff car park? In Australia: 0. In Japan:5+, when I drove yesterday past a middle school where I work.
Japan has 3 school terms: April to July, September to December, and January to March. The summer holiday is the longest, which is similar to most countries I think, but it’s different in that a lot of kids still come to school every day for club activities. Like basketball practice or matches every day for 5 or 6 weeks. Teachers also come to school every day except when it’s a public holiday.
In Hiroshima Prefecture, in the city where I work, school was cancelled on three separate occasions in Term 1 due to rain and flood/landslide warnings. By the way, school being cancelled means students not coming, but all the teachers hanging out in the (air conditioned!) staff room all day, unless they have meetings or stuff to do in their empty home rooms. What follows in this post is, as close as I was able to recall/translate when I got home that night, a conversation that took place on the last of these days between the two Grade 4 teachers and me as most of the staff were tucking into their ordered-at-the-last-minute bentos, and I my Family Mart rice balls (had been at a different school in the morning and missed out on the bento ordering).
Note: BJ=BijinJapan, T1 and T2: Grade 4, Class 1 and Class 2 home room teachers
BJ: Oh! Sensei, you brought a bento!?
T1: Yeah, I was making one for my daughter so it was easy to make one for myself too.
T2: Ah, she takes a bento?
BJ: How old is your daughter?
T1: She’s in grade 3. She’ll be at your middle school in three years. My son is in kindergarten, so he only needs to take rice.
T2: He has to take rice?
T1: Yeah. They have the おかず okazu (mains/sides to go alongside rice) there, but the kids have to bring their own rice. With no nori or seasoning – they reckon there’s too much salt in it.
BJ: Huh! I didn’t know they had school lunch at kindergarten.
T1: I’m glad we have school lunch here.
T2: Me too.
BJ: Me too! We don’t have it in Australia.
T1: Really!? Everyone brings a bento?
T1: Oh wait, they don’t have bentos there do they? Do they just wrap their lunch in a cloth and bring it?
BJ: Oh, most kids do have a lunchbox, but it is a different kind (shows picture that is conveniently lying around on nearby desk ready for a poster). Kids often take a sandwich, some fruit, maybe a little packet of chips or biscuits. The one in this picture looks like it has yoghurt and grapes.
T1: Wow. So there’s no food hall or cafeteria?
BJ: Well, most schools have a canteen for if you can’t bring lunch, but usually the food’s not that healthy.
T1: So did you take lunch every day?
BJ: Yeah, I did. Sandwiches every day, pretty boring huh!
T1: No rice balls?
BJ: No, nobody really eats rice balls in Australia.
T1: But you’ve got them today! Do you like Japanese food?
BJ: Yes, very much.
T1: Do you cook at home?
BJ: Yes, well, of course?
T1: That’s great! What do you make?
BJ: Um… food? I make a lot of pasta and sometimes curries like Indian or Thai curry.
T2: Yum, that sounds nice.
T1: Wow, you can make that? Is it difficult? Do you make it from scratch with the spices and stuff?
BJ: With Indian food sometimes I use spices, but for Thai I just use a curry paste from the shops, so it’s really easy.
T1: Nice, I’ve never tried to make Thai curry. What about Japanese food, do you cook anything?
BJ: Sometimes I make okonomiyaki, Osaka style. I like to make it because it’s simple, but Hiroshima style is tricky to eat, let alone make.
T1 & T2: Yeah, Hiroshima style is not for home, too hard!
T1: So are you going home for summer?
BJ: Yes, looking forward to seeing my family… we’re going skiing 🙂
T1: Oh right, it’s winter there! It snows?
BJ: Only in the mountains usually. But today was supposed to be quite cold, Canberra was forecast to maybe get some snow, I think the maximum temperature was going to be 7 degrees (Centigrade).
T2: Does it get into the minuses?
BJ: Overnight, yes, but not during the day.
T2: Sounds comfortable.
BJ: Yeah, it’s good. So I’m looking forward to feeling cold! But it almost feels like the closer it gets, the more homesick I get, because I can feel that it’s soon, it’s soon, it’s coming…
T1: It’s the same for us with Obon! (a holiday of a few days where everyone goes to their hometown and visits their parents, and their ancestors’ graves)
BJ: Ah, yes! Are you going to visit your parents?
T1: Yeah, but it’s not far for me, how about you, T2?
T2: I’m the same, but my husband’s family lives in Yamaguchi, so he’ll be away.
T1: So when are you going to Australia?
T2: Oh, only for August?
BJ: I’ll be there for 3 weeks. Isn’t that a long time in Japanese terms?
T2: Yeah, it is.
T1: Yeah! If someone was away from work for 3 weeks, everyone wouldn’t get it, it would be like, “What? What are they doing?”*
T2: Yes, it doesn’t really happen here.
T1: What’s it like in Australia for 社会人 shakaijin (full-time workers/members of society)?
BJ: I think most people get about 3 weeks off a year, and you can decide when you take them.
T1: Wow, that’s nice! We get 5 to maybe 10 days over Obon and New Year.
BJ: There’s also this thing we call ‘long service leave’ where if you stay at one company for 10 years, you get 3 months off.
T1: WHAAAAAAT No way! What do you even do with that time?
BJ: Anything you like.
T1: We are workaholics, we work too much. It’s nice during the summer break though; usually we leave school at 7 or 7:30 but in the summer we can go home at 5, so I can go to the pool with my daughter.
BJ: …In Australia that’s normal, the normal working day is 8 or 9 to 5 or 6.
T1: Ah, work-life balance, right? So you can spend time with your family every day!
BJ: It’s important, I think, and good for your health.
T1: Yes, good for mental health.
T2: Is it only Japan that keeps hours like ours?
BJ: I’m not sure, but I think in Europe it’s similar to Australia.
T2: Yeah, I wonder if it’s only Asian countries…
BJ: Korea might be similar?
T2: I think Korea is similar. But you know, it used to be more easygoing around here, 10, 20, maybe 30 years ago. You could come into the teachers’ room in the summer and there would be nobody here.
BJ: What happened?
T2: There’s just all this work to do…
BJ: I wonder how/why it changed from the past?
T2: There are more things we have to write these days, we have to write documents, reports, and submit them to the Board of Education.
T1: It’s been that way since I started teaching, we have to write a lot of stuff. But you have to write reports and things too, don’t you?
BJ: The only thing I usually have to write is lesson plans, unless there’s some special event happening…
*this happens not uncommonly however, when teachers get so stressed/sick that they take a month or year off to recover
And that’s how that conversation went. Here’s to summer holidays.