Here’s what mid-April in Japan means to me: The cherry blossoms have come and gone, the kids are back in school and mothers all over the country are suffering writer’s cramp from labeling school gear.
Everything, and I do mean everything, that a child takes to school is supposed to be labeled with the child’s name. I’m sure that’s true in most countries. It is in America, where I come from. But Japanese schoolchildren have far more school gear than American children. They have uwabaki (shoes for indoor use) and gym clothes. They have regulation swimsuits and bathing caps. They have lunch mats, drawing boards, sewing sets and any number of other supplies that American schoolchildren simply don’t.
Schools in Japan are also stricter about name labels. You are supposed to label every article of clothing a child ever wears to school, including socks and underwear. I don’t go this far. I figure I’d have bigger problems than missing clothing if my kids started losing their underpants at school.
But many Japanese moms do it. One friend, who got in the habit when her boys were in day-care, admits she still writes their names on all their clothing, including their underwear. Her oldest finds this particularly embarrassing, perhaps because he’s a college freshman.
Labeling everything when a child first enters school is a big job. Unfortunately, the work doesn’t end there. A proper name label includes the child’s class assignment, which means you have to relabel everything at the beginning of each new school year.
This year, I relabeled in a leisurely way over spring vacation, but only for my younger child. In Japan, students generally stay in the same class with the same classmates for two years, even if the teacher changes. So I knew he would be moving from 1-1 (first grade, class one) to 2-1 (second grade, class one).
But for my older child, I couldn’t do anything in advance. That was because he was moving from fourth grade to fifth grade, a time for kurasugae (reshuffling of class members). I couldn’t get his new class assignment until he came home from the first day of school.
I was waiting for him at the door, my indelible marker in hand. “What class? What class?” I demanded. “Go-nen, ichi-kumi!” he cried out. I was off and marking before he even got his shoes off.
I wrote “5-1” on his school hat. His bottle of glue. His raincoat. I wrote “5-1” on all his protractors and triangles. On every piece in his calligraphy set. I wrote “5-1” on his backpack. On his recorder. On his music bag. And on so much more.
All this labeling is a lot of work for me, but I try to respect it as the Japanese way of doing things. And as a good idea. After all, when everything is labeled, misplaced items are almost always returned to their owners.
Here’s an example: My younger son came home one day saying he needed new colored pencils. He claimed every one in his set had disappeared. Now, I’m fully aware that this son is . . . how can I say this nicely? . . . “organizationally challenged.” So I went to school to investigate. His teacher helped me search the classroom, including the desks of his classmates. We found every one of the missing pencils.
But my efforts to maintain a good attitude about labeling failed miserably when I was confronted with the task of labeling my first-grader’s sansu setto (math set). This is a boxed collection of what we call in America “math manipulatives,” little plastic objects that children can hold in their hands and move around to help them understand basic mathematical concepts like addition and subtraction. There are counting sticks and dice and little blocks and lots, lots more.
My son was presented with a new math set at his school entrance ceremony, a gift from our local board of education. In most districts, parents buy the set, but virtually every child in Japan has one.
Because the sets are used at school, and every child owns one, the rule is that each piece of each set must be labeled with the owner’s name. Each piece! There are 230 pieces in the set my son received, and every one is so small as to be barely visible to the naked eye.
Fortunately, I had been forewarned. I had ordered a set of namae shiru (pre-printed name labels) specifically designed for labeling school supplies. It even had 56 tiny petal-shaped labels, just half a centimeter long, that fitted perfectly on ohajiki, the teeny-tiny flower-shaped counters that come in math sets. The company (Pour Vous,  669-196, www.p-v.co.jp ).could even print our labels in katakana. The stickers made the job go faster, but it still took more than two miserable hours.
I learned only after the fact that I had done it all wrong. According to a Web site on child-rearing, better mothers view the math-set labeling job as an opportunity to teach their child respect for education. Only now do I understand that it was inappropriate for my son to hear me say things like: “Label every piece? They really expect me to label every piece? How did I end up living in a nation of obsessive-compulsives?”
Instead, it seems, I should have said: “I’m so happy that you will be learning mathematics. Aren’t you lucky to have this wonderful math set to help you?” And using name labels is cheating. Perfect parents use an indelible marker to write out their child’s name, again and again and again, so they can imprint maternal love on each piece.
At least I had the sense not to complain in front of my friend Mina. She had twins entering first grade. Two math sets. Four hundred and sixty teeny-tiny plastic pieces.
No wonder Mina says she’s not having any more children.