What is the secret of lifelong friendships that form in elementary school? I would never have thought to ask myself that question until my father-in-law announced he wouldn’t be home for Sunday’s family dinner because he was attending a party. Though he put it quite casually, the amazing thing to me was that Toshihiko Wakabayashi was meeting up with his fourth-grade classmates.
Fourth-grade class? He has an enviable circle of companions, including among his close inner circle many of the same people he played with in Ueno Park more than 60 years ago. Together they climbed trees, gathered ginko nuts and smuggled them home in bulging pockets to roast over the hibachi. Theirs is not only a bond developed through studying together, but also through growing up together in Tokyo’s shitamachi.
To my delight, my father-in-law invited me along too, to meet with these 70-year-old former classmates from Okachimachi Elementary School who’ve spent their lives as wholesalers, shopkeepers, factory presidents, cafe owners and suburban homemakers. The venue for this remarkable gathering was a restaurant in Ikenohata, near where their old neighborhood school had stood before it was leveled by the bombs and fires of 1945.
It was after the devastation of the war, during which many of the classmates had been sent to the homes of distant relatives in the countryside, that one of their number, Yoshio Tachikawa, began collecting addresses and phone numbers in an effort to trace his old friends. Through his efforts, the group eventually met in a sushi shop in Asakusabashi in 1952, at the first of what has since become a regular biennial reunion.
“It’s quite unusual for elementary school reunions to take place this long after leaving school,” concedes my father-in-law. “I still meet with my college classmates and that’s pretty common in Japan. But with the elementary school classmates, it’s a sentimental thing. It’s a way of bringing back old memories of a school that no longer exists.”
At this year’s party, just a stone’s throw from Ueno Park’s Shinobazu Pond, organizer Keiji Miyaji counts 22 out of the 35 active members of the Okachimachi Fourth-Grade Class Club. The common memories of losing their elementary school to wartime bombing, and of seeing their Okachimachi neighborhood reduced to blackened rubble, has left an indelible mark on their lives.
“I always tell my son that it’s good he didn’t experience war,” says Chigusa Koganei, who commuted an hour from her home in Ota Ward to attend the reunion. “These are experiences I can only share with people who understand and have been through it.
“I’ll always remember March 10, 1945. It was the start of the fire-bombing of Okachimachi by the B-29s. Their gas bombs ignited the entire neighborhood,” she recalls. “We fled with our belongings piled on rickshaws. Later, we discovered we’d lost our elementary school.”
Okachimachi Elementary School was a reinforced steel and concrete building erected in 1928 and designed to withstand earthquakes, since the Great Kanto Earthquake had leveled its wooden predecessor five years before. Homeroom classes for the 1,200 students had as many as 60 pupils managed by a single male teacher, with few women teachers in evidence. Boys and girls were separated into different classrooms, then brought together to study art, music and other extracurricular subjects. So in fact, some of the group members didn’t really get to know each other until they started attending these fourth-grade reunion parties as alumni.
But many did know each other, even if they didn’t share the same classes, because of the neighborhood they grew up in. Okachimachi homes were narrow wooden structures, often with a business in front and living quarters in the back or on a second floor. Without gardens, these homes stood side by side, edge to edge, divided by narrow lanes in between. In the absence of backyards, the only recreational space was the streets, where all the children played together.
“So naturally when your classmates live next door, you had two, three or more siblings that played together, and you had easy communication,” says my father-in-law.
If there are any secrets to these enduring friendships, I was about to discover, it’s that some of these friends, like my father-in-law, are still living in the same tight-knit neighborhood where they grew up. Some of those who gather for the reunions aren’t just friends and classmates — they’ve been neighbors for life. They bump into each other on the crowded streets of Okachimachi, at festivals and town meetings. My father-in-law will make it a point to turn up at a Tokyo concert hall to watch his former classmate Toshiaki Kawachi play his guitar at Argentinian tango concerts. Paper-crafts wholesaler Keiji Miyaji’s solo noh performances draw classmates who enjoy this classical theater form.
In peacetime, this old group of friends reflect on how the education system in Japan has changed. Koganei remembers being disciplined for talking: “I’d be singled out for chatting. But chatting is always between two people, right? My teacher always blamed me. He didn’t like me because I was opinionated.”
Miyaji’s memories of being hauled up for misbehaving in class are vivid. “If children made a mistake, teachers would correct them. We’d be hit on the head or receive a slap on the cheek,” Miyaji recalls.
“Teachers were in control and parents expected them to be there to discipline us,” adds my father-in-law. “Now parents are too lax about teaching such things as manners. It’s a mistake in today’s society.”
The flipside to this strictness were the rather familial outings outside of school hours, often the result of the teacher’s initiative. My father-in-law recalls picnics in Ueno Park on the teachers’ days off. “They could also be kind and generous with their time. There weren’t such rigid borders between school and home life as there are today.”
These old friends have seen their old school destroyed, their learning methods become obsolete, and even the neighborhood they grew up in become a changed place. Okachimachi today is a grid of utility pole-lined streets crammed with concrete buildings.
But the camaraderie remains a comforting constant. As the party draws to a close, Koganei is making plans with another friend, Sumiko Ozawa, to visit a long-lost classmate Rosa Adachi, who lives in Mexico. And my father-in-law is already drawing up plans for these reunions to take place more often. “Let’s enjoy each other’s company while we still have our health,” he suggests. “Why don’t you slow down?” Miyaji humors him. “Let’s get through this one first.”