It's 8:20AM and the kyoutou-sensei, or vice-principal, is pointing to a stuffed bear in a neon hat, with no sense of irony. He says it represents our school winning some academic contest yesterday. And the staff-room quietly murmurs approvingly about the new stuffed animal we have acquired.
I haven't figured out the Japanese education system yet, and I don't think Japan has either. On the one hand, its based in the Confucian model of study-bees who don't question their teacher and in which competition is not good within the class. On the other hand, I've never seen so many contests -- English speech contest, "Best Song" singing competition, "best dance team" during Sports Day. Today a student said something stupid in class and the teacher pulled his head forward and flicked his forehead. It was all in a joking way and they both laughed but I somehow can't imagine that happening in the States.
It's still a work in progress understanding these seeming contradictions. The system appears so rigid, with students bowing to their teachers, murmuring, "shitsureishimasu" ("sorry to bother you") as they enter and leave the staff room, and a whole host of other ritualistic pleasantries. But on the other hand, not many classes go by without students obviously sleeping at their desks. I'm talking, head down on desk; book closed; in some cases, snoring. And the teachers either ignore it or wake them up with a polite request to keep their eyes open during the lesson. They also cheat. They blatantly open their books during vocabulary tests or write the answers in a corner of the blackboard. If they're caught nothing happens but a short reprimand with a tone of recognition that their cheating was clever. I wash my hands of the sleeping issue and the cheating issue because I defer to the other teachers and it's not my place. But even saying that it seems that I too am finding my role in this topsy-turvy hierarchy.