The bunkasai (文化祭) is a cultural festival put on by just about every stinking school under the sun in Japan. Not only high schools, but elementary and even universities have one every year! It’s actually part of regular lessons, and I do believe kids have to attend in order to graduate:) They may sound kinda “lame” to the average American, but I am going to tell you just how freaking RAD high school bunkasais actually are. In fact, the one at my base school is strategically placed just before the end of the school year, so not only do the kids feel like it’s a celebration of the year/ summer vacation, but teachers here do too! In fact, the teachers have their own way of celebrating as soon as the little brats go home! So… without further ado, this is why the high school bunkasai is so rad…
Before I start, let me tell you a little about how high school is run in Japan (your average academic high school). Each high school has three grades. We call them 1st grade, 2nd grade, and 3rd grade. Think of them as Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. The teachers in the high school are only in charge of teaching one of the grades. For example, I’m a 1st grade teacher. For my high school, and there are six classes per grade. Each class is called a homeroom. For example, 11 homeroom, 12 homeroom, 13 homeroom, etc. Each homeroom has a homeroom teacher. They go to their homeroom at the beginning and end of each day to get announcements etc. The kids stay in their homeroom the entire day, while the teachers actually move from room to room. Its setup is a lot like private schools in the US or an elementary or middle school. All grades can join after school club activities. Some are arts based, and some are sports. There are no cuts on the sports teams. The bunkasai is meant to help put the achievements of the arts clubs on display for everyone to see. It’s the one time of the year where everyone gets to see what those “non-sports clubs” are doing. So, here is an explanation through pictures (mostly):
#1 The kids run it all:
For those who can’t read this thing, the 1st section is the “get ready for a crazy tornado of awesome” section. It lists the times for practicing their home room dances, which I’ll tell you more about later, and the time for students to set up the classrooms to display each of their clubs. Basically, the teachers create the schedule, and delegate responsibility. But the entire festival is put on by the kids and the clubs that kids are in. The adults all definitely have a very important role, but expect the students to be prepared, ready to go, and set up their stuff in each room.
#2 Everyone’s involved
On the first day of the actual Bunkasai (not counting Day 1: Preparation) Each homeroom will perform a dance. And when I say perform a dance, I mean… like 40 students get together make a 5 minute elaborate dance on stage in front of all the people they know. They begin working on these a month before the actual Bunkasai. On the day of, parents and staff members can come and watch the dances. There is a winner for each grade, and they’re judged on: Technique, costume, and class participation. So, every kid has got to do something.
This is from one of the groups. They whole class is on stage and as you can see, all the students are sitting on the floor watching their dances. In fact, each homeroom that’s watching gets to vote on their top three favorites as well. There are usually 2 judges that get called in from somewhere else to judge the kids (dance instructors from the city), staff judges (principle, vice principle, ALT), and the homeroom votes. These three things determine the winner.
Costume and lighting play an important role in how sweet these dances look too. The lighting and music is also run by the broadcasting club. Kids loved the glow sticks. All-in-all it takes about 3 hours to get through all the dances for each home room, judge them, and clean up. After the final dances, the beginning of the club showcases, the games, and the food begins.
#3 The artsyfartsy clubs get to showcase their stuff!
If you’re a 1st grader, your main responsibility is just making sure you help your club prepare their setup, beyond that and your homeroom dance, you are free. The first floor of our school is reserved for all the artsy club activities. We have Tea Ceremony, Flower Arrangement, Junior Red Cross, Calligraphy, Photography, Science, and a bunch of others.
This is traditional tea ceremony club. Here, the club members will sit you down, and run through a traditional tea ceremony. This includes a yummy sweet bean thingymabob and a delicious cup of bitter green tea to accompany it. In case you are ever walking around in Japan and you see the bright red umbrella set up in a garden area of some sort, that means there is a tea ceremony that you can most likely take part in!
A few steps away is a display of Ikebana club. My flowers are the ones all the way to the left. each arrangement has the student’s name along with a message about their flowers. Mine was cheesy, so I don’t want to tell you what it said.
In one of the home room classes, the Art club and Photography Club shared a space. Each side displayed different works by the students. Guests were given a piece of paper to vote on their top three photographs (or drawings in this case). After they vote, the students from that club give the guests a piece of candy as a ‘Thank you for voting!’ type of thing. This illustration was my favorite.
This was done by the Caligraphy students, and to the right of Kyle is a big collection of their work.
The Junior Red Cross spent some time working at a blind school, so their activity was for people to create meshi (name cards) in braille. You just sat down, they gave you a book, and you wrote your name in braille. Fact: Kimberly once taught herself braille because she loved Helen Keller so much.
#4 ALL the games!
If you’re a 2nd grader, your job becomes a little harder. Not only are you in charge of setting up for your own after school club, but your homeroom is in charge of two separate things. 1) Your homeroom dance, and 2) Your homeroom display. 2nd graders think of something to do that guests can actively become a part of and enjoy. Students can choose to do a separate homeroom game, or combine with another class to do something bigger. This year, our students did a Haunted House, Planetarium, Carnival Games, and a Ping Pong Tournament.
Strike out was one of the homeroom’s games. Sorry for the creepy cat heads, but I can’t show student faces:) Evan and Kimberly attempting to knock over the paper pins with a super light puck type thing. It was seriously so much harder than you think!! None of us got all 4 pins… But everyone gets a prize for trying!
This shared the same room. You had to throw a ball through the numbered holes, and depending on what you hit, you got a prize from a basket labeled with the number of points you got!
This is just outside the Planetarium. If you look, they blacked out all the light going into the classroom. Once you enter the class there was a huge black dome you crawled into. Inside the dome, there were individual desks setup, and cardboard pieces on the ground. Each of the guests lay under a desk and look up at the planetarium they created. You watch the stars while listening to a relaxing mix of Japanese boy bands and duets about the stars.
Kids walk around with signs hung on their necks trying to advertise their homeroom’s game. Here, we have two kids trying to get me to come to the haunted ghost house they created.
Two girls try to scare Evan one last time as he exits the house. Inside the stuff the kids do is actually creepy. Kids grab your ankles while you walk, brush your hair behind you as you run away, squirt you with squirt guns, drop severed heads from the ceiling attached to ropes, and they even had a girl straight from the ring who just stares at you with a dim light on her face. Slow twitching movements as she shuffles toward you before turning a corner. It’s awesome.
Here’s the sweet Ping Pong Battle between one of my 2nd grade students and Kyle. Our friend Dylan is watching in the background. I think Kyle won, and my student was so sad he couldn’t defeat him. Haha.
On the second floor is also the Cinderella Staircase. It goes from the 3rd floor all the way to the 1st, and they say they remind them of the Cinderella staircase. This year, they made an actual Cinderella looking off into the distance.
#5 The food. Dear heaven, the food.
Much like the 2nd grade students, if you are a 3rd grade student you have to do your club activity, homeroom dance, and instead of an interactive thing for guests, your job is to create a food booth and sell food items. Now, I don’t wanna knock on this school’s food, but one of my visit schools has a cooking program… The food at that Bunkasai is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Freaking yum. In fact, their fried taiyaki is the best thing I have ever eaten. It’s incredibly delicious.
It doesn’t even matter that it was blazing hot that day at school. Kids dress up and walk around the school advertising their homeroom’s food booth. Behind us there are a ton of food stalls. With food like hot dogs, pizza gyoza (pot stickers), yakisoba, okonomiyaki (eggy pancake thing), shaved ice, takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and a lot of other random things.
Here they had set up all their classroom desks to make a little cafeteria seating area in the middle of all the food stalls. if you look at this picture, it’s easy to spot the 1st graders. They have their normal Japanese school uniforms on. The 2nd and 3rd graders get shirts made for this event. It’s a privilege they earn once they get to 2nd grade. Each shirt represents a different homeroom.
At the end of day two, the kids clean up all the stuff they prepared, and we say goodbye and announce the winners of the dance competition, and food sales over the school intercom. You can . The last day of their Bunkasai is on a Saturday. So yes, I need to go to work on a Saturday… But when your work is walking around, eating, playing, and talking with the students, it’s a pretty great Friday and Saturday of work in my opinion.
This is a pic from the office I sit in all day. Across the courtyard you can see three stories of classrooms. So, you can imagine, when they announce the winners of the intercom, you can hear the kids screaming and shouting with pure joy when they hear their homeroom being crowned the victory. It’s pretty freaking rad.
#6 Teacher’s volleyball tourney and PARTY
The Monday following this crazy busy weekend, we have all the students go to the gym, and we have a small ceremony to wish them luck and tell them to be safe during the summer holidays. Us teachers finish out our day reflecting and decompressing, then at the end of the day we have a staff volleyball tournament. We play 5 games against the other departments in our school. 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, School affairs, Student Guidance, and Study & training (my section). We ended up only winning 4 out of 5 games, so we came in second. But we still killed it!
And together, we celebrate with a food and drinking party… what an excellent way to say, “WELCOME SUMMER!!”