Two months ago, my 8-year-old came home from the Japanese elementary school he attends and told me about the play his grade would do at the upcoming gakugeikai (drama festival).
“I can’t remember the name,” he said. “But it’s a Japanese story about a girl.”
“Is it Kaguyahime, the Bamboo Princess?” I suggested, knowing that schools do that play a lot.
“No,” he said. “This girl has a dog.”
I quickly thought through all the folk tales and traditional stories I know, but I couldn’t recall one about a girl and her dog. “Are you sure it’s a Japanese story?” I asked.
“Sure I’m sure!” he said, getting a little impatient. “It’s about a girl named Doroshii who gets caught in a tatsumaki, and her house falls down and kills the Kita-no-majo, and the Manchukintachi are really glad so they tell Doroshii to go see Ozu no Mahotsukai and ask him to help her get back home to Kanzasu.”
I stared at my son in disbelief. “And you are absolutely positive this is a Japanese story?” I pressed.
“Of course it’s Japanese!” he insisted, by now thoroughly annoyed with his stupid mother.
“Let’s go to the video store,” I said.
“What for?” he asked suspiciously.
“So I can get you culturally realigned. The play you are doing is called ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and it’s as American as apple pie.”
That evening the whole family watched the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. It was the first time either of my kids had seen it.
Over the next few weeks, my son and his classmates learned all the mechanics of putting on a play, including auditions, scripts and stage cues. They learned the songs and memorized their lines. It was their first experience with drama because our school holds its drama festival just once every three years.
A generation ago, the gakugeikai was an annual event at most Japanese elementary schools. But these days, schools are more likely to hold a gakugeikai every other year, usually alternating with a special exhibit of student art. At our school, the drama festival rotates with two other school events — an art exhibition one year, a music concert the next year, and the gakugeikai the third year.
Since we moved to Japan almost three years ago, I’d never experienced a gakugeikai. I followed with interest all the activity leading up to the big event. For weeks, the students practiced and made costumes and scenery. I thought parents would be asked to help, but the kids and teachers did everything themselves.
The gakugeikai was scheduled for a Friday and Saturday in mid-November. On the first day, the students put on the full production for each other. The second day was for parents and family. In the United States, school plays are usually held on weekday evenings, so I was surprised that our school here was doing it on a Saturday. To compensate teachers for working on the weekend, the following Monday was a school holiday.
My husband and I arrived early, but the gymnasium was already packed with parents and grandparents, all toting cameras and videorecorders. We were lucky to find seats relatively close to the stage. Each grade did a 30-minute performance, so we sat on those folding chairs from 9 o’clock until well after noon.
The entire program was impressive. The kids did a great job, singing and dancing and speaking their lines clearly. I was surprised that the upper grades took on such challenging themes. The sixth-graders, for example, wrote their own play about a search for happiness through the ages, from Cleopatra’s Egypt to modern Japan.
My older son and his fifth-grade classmates did a play that explored how society limits children by expecting them to conform to gender roles. In one of the songs, a chorus of boys complained that adults always say to them, “You’re a boy, so you have to do so-and-so.” Meanwhile, the girls’ chorus complained that adults expect them to behave in certain ways just because they are girls. There was a bit of fun gender-bending in this scene, because half of the “boys” in the boys’ chorus were actually girls, while half of those singing the girls’ lines were in fact boys.
Sadly, the next gakugeikai at our school will probably be something less elaborate. Last April, when Japan switched to a five-day school week, the number of instructional hours in the national curriculum was cut. Schools now have fewer hours for special events like the gakugeikai. And under the new rules, less of the time spent preparing for special events can be counted as instruction. As a result, many schools around the country have replaced the gakugeikai with a simpler program called gakushu happyokai, a presentation on things the children have studied recently.
There’s been a similar cutback in dramatic arts in the U.S. School plays were an annual event when I was a kid, but in recent years drama has all but disappeared from U.S. elementary schools. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to teach basic skills so that kids perform well on standardized tests. Most U.S. schools now see plays as too time-consuming.
I’m glad my son got to experience at least one gakugeikai. I think he enjoyed it and learned a lot. The night after the performance, when I was tucking him into bed, he seemed to have something on his mind, “Mom, you said ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is as American as apple pie, right?”
“I know,” I said, smiling. “All this time you thought appuru pai was Japanese, too.” He grinned and gave me a kiss.