The Japanese Middle School Farewell Party – Now With More Katy Perry
March 25, 2010
Of the myriad “facts” relayed to us new JET participants back in Tokyo circa July 2009, two have really stuck with me because of just how wrong they seem to be. The first concerns soda in vending machines. Several different speakers, pressed to explain differences between Japanese culture and the rest of the world, claimed a Japanese person would opt for a smaller bottle of Coca-Cola from a vending machine over a larger bottle that cost the exact same because they “weren’t that thirsty.” This story reeks of bullshit because I’ve yet to stumble across a machine where the different sized offerings cost the same – the small container goes for 120 yen, the bigger one for 150. I don’t know why someone would have to lie about a subject so banal.
The other myth? The wildness of “enkais,” or work parties. The folks at JET orientation made these things sound like some borderline Roman-orgies. Teachers getting crazy, stumbling around drunk and forming human pyramids. I looked forward to this debauchery. Alas, the enkai experience seems to have been greatly exaggerated by the folks responsible for those seminars. They are certainly more wild than a typical day at work, but all that means is the teachers talk about subjects other than school and we eat nice food. Enkais are plenty fun, but nothing near the hyped up version promised by those people in Tokyo.
Though nobody got stacked on top of one-another, the “end of year” party put together by one of my junior high schools came close to matching these hedonistic images cultivated at orientation. It wasn’t that rambunctious, but did see most of the staff loosening up to a great degree. The school went big – they rented out a room in a fancy, chapel-shaped building where all the staff wears nice suits and each room comes equipped with a piano. The local Cocos it wasn’t.
The party served as a send-off for the 13 teachers being moved to new schools in the new academic year (start of April). In a showcase of the establishment’s fanciness, the party started off with all the lights being dimmed as the staircase located in the back of the room lit up. The soon-to-be-transferred staff walked down the illuminated steps as “Pomp And Circumstance” played. The rest of the evening featured speeches from the leaving teachers and a segment where they all got gifts. Laughs, smiles and tears all around.
For the most part, this portion of the party seemed pretty par for the course of an enkai. A few oddities, though, did stick out. Primarily, the soundtrack for the evening. This chapel-slash-banquet-hall decided the perfect musical choice for a going-away party would be Katy Perry’s last CD. People had emotional farewells soundtracked by “Hot N Cold” and “Waking Up In Vegas.” Nothing beats seeing two teachers, close friends at school, saying their last goodbyes as Ms. Perry bleats out “I kissed a girl/and I liked it.” They at least had the good sense to skip over “Ur So Gay.”
Besides Warped Tour worthy pop, this enkai also featured a not-seen-before enthusiasm to get me drunk. At previous parties, co-workers reacted to me having a drink or two with a “Very good, yes” or other barely there phrases. This night, though, people wanted me plastered. The teachers, always quick to fill a halfway empty glass, seemed especially eagle-eyed. One of my English teachers drove home the point that I “need to drink more!” It seemed most of my conversations at this point in the night touched on this subject.
The first party closed out with a song. One of the music teachers manned the piano and played a song that everyone else joined in singing. As it was all in Japanese, I stood up and sorta bobbed along to it. After that, we formed a human tunnel and all the on-there-way-out teachers ran through a la the ending of a kid’s soccer game (“2 4 6 8 Who do we appreciate?”). At the end of the tunnel waited a few male teachers, who tossed up the teachers in the air like college students do after their team scores a touchdown.
This would have been a fine ending to the night, except they had an after party lined up. We piled into a van and drove south to a vaguely 50’s America themed karaoke joint. This is where things really picked up – it was at this venue decorated with old-looking guitars and tacky license plates where the teachers really let loose. They talk a little louder, act a little bit more silly and generally seem to be having a lot of fun. If you’ll allow me a second to play Jr. sociologist, I’d guess karaoke is so popular in Japan because it’s one of the true escapes found in this country – a place where all the realities of the outside world take a backseat. Kinda like Cheers but with more awkward singing.
Speaking of…many of the teachers wanted to see me make a fool of myself singing, but when I finally did croon off I can only imagine it was kinda a disappointment. I could only sing in English, and nobody in the room seemed to know any English songs whatsoever. I opened up with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” hoping they knew of this little band called The Beatles, but they seemed more or less baffled. Later on, joined by the one teacher who enjoys English songs, I gave “Faith by George Michael (note: did not know any of the words to this song, I think I faked it OK) a whirl. Same polite but confused reaction. At least the teacher I did the duet with enjoyed himself.
Based on my night singing karaoke with Japanese co-workers, it seems people in this country enjoy slower songs. When I’m out with other English speaking friends, we opt for faster-paced jams, the slowest we get being….Snow Patrol? I’m excluding the occasional ironic take on Enya. The staff from this school, though, sand almost exclusively slow, melancholy tunes. Makes some sense, as ballads tend to make a much bigger dent in the charts here than in America. That, and the majority of people I was with were middle-aged, and seeing them belt out Arashi (popular Japanese boy band) would have been pretty unsettling.
The farewell party didn’t come close to matching up with folklore spilled in Tokyo, but was a lot nearer than previous parties. And it was fun. Even if I got caught singing a George Michael song I’d only heard from VH1 clip shows.
(Japanese Fun Fact #52 – The last day of school for non-graduating students consists of nothing but cleaning the entire school.)