My French professor used to say that France is a nation where children try to become adults as soon as they possibly can, while in Japan, adults try to extend their childhood for as long as they possibly can.
The truth of this statement can be seen in izakaya salaryman conversations round this time of year. From the 23-year-old shinjin-kun (rookie) to the 50-year-old bucho (general manager), everyone’s talk turns to what they used to do during natsuyasumi (summer holidays) when they ran around as shogakusei (elementary school students). Their gazes drift into midair as if upon some faraway memory, they sigh, and order another beer.
The very word natsuyasumi seems to belong to the shogakusei, who enjoy the only years of Japanese school life that are relatively free of exam and juku (cram school) anxieties. The shogakusei natsuyasumi is a time of pure joy, tempered only by spurts of discipline. Indeed, it’s this balance of kan (loosening up) and kyu (buckling down) that makes the holiday so special.
Between July 21 and Aug. 31, shogakusei wake early for sessions of rajio taiso (calisthenics to music from the radio) in neighboring parks. In the afternoons, they go swimming in the school pool (this is why it’s practically impossible to find a Japanese who can’t swim). Before dinner, they’ll work on natsuyasumi no shukudai (vacation homework) with Mom and, in the evenings, will crunch on kakigori (crushed ice with syrup and/or ice cream on top) or play with hanabi (fireworks) in backyards or on verandas.
Of course, days like these will alternate with family outings to the beach and onsen (spa) — days on which kids can crash comfortably in the back seat as Dad maneuvers the car through the traditional 65-km jutai (gridlock) on the Tomei Expressway. Upon returning home, everything gets written up in the mandatory enikki (illustrated diary), which has been a big part of summertime homework for the past century.
Ah, glorious shogakusei summers, never to return!
But shogakusei aren’t only the enjoyers of the most carefree years of the typical Japanese life — they’re often the wisest and most trustworthy section of the population. They seem naturally tapped into what’s important in life. They’re fair, gracious and self-sufficient.
Take 9-year-old Rintaro, who lives next door to me. So wise, calm and cool is he that at school he’s opened a children’s therapy clinic (consultations free of charge). Whenever his parents have a fight, they ask him to referee in the belief that “shogakusei wa ichiban kashikoi toki dakara (grade school is the time when children are smartest).” Rintaro shrugs and says they’re right. He adds that grownups in general are “isogashikute, kawaisode, nasakenai (busy, pitiful and weak)” — but he loves his parents anyway.
For a school project, Rintaro and his friends composed a letter to their fellow students called “Natsuyasumi wo Bujini Tanoshiku Sugosutameni (How to Enjoy Your Summer Holidays Without a Hitch).”
These are some of their suggestions:
1. Gaishutsu no atowa sekkende te wo arao (Upon returning home from playing outdoors, always remember to wash your hands with soap).
2. Tsumetai mono wo tabesugunaiyoni shiyo (Let’s be careful not to eat too many cold desserts).
3. Mushiba wo hayaku naoshimasho (If you have any cavities, this is the time to get them fixed).
What sound, all-we-need-to-know-in-life kind of advice. It takes a shogakusei to sift through the muck of daily living and zero in on issues that really matter.
One of their rules, though, made me weep: Otona ni meiwaku wo kakenaiyoni shiyo (Let’s not be a burden on grownups). Now if we can only get Rintaro and his buddies to photocopy the list and pass it around the Kokkaigijido (Diet Building) . . .