As I walking to school on Wednesday, a car drove past me and stopped. A kid from my main elementary school got out. He crossed the road and went to stand with another kid. I've seen them and a few others walk to school together. All the kids do it here. And since they're all wearing the same track pants, and the really little ones have flourescent yellow caps and bookbag covers, and they walk in a line, I've taken to calling them the ducklings.
I see ducklings every day. There are two groups that walk from that area. And a couple more that come from down the hill. And then there are the groups I see when I go out to tiny school. But I'd always thought the kids walked to school because they had to. Because they're Moms or Dads weren't available to take them.
And seeing that kid get dropped off at a meeting point (and then watching his Dad turn in the direction of the school (a 2 minute drive), I realised that walking to school is probably not optional.
As you move up school years, your position in the duckling line changes. There's always a 6th grader in front, then the kids are organised from first grade up and there's always a 6th grader at the back. So walking to school is a part of your school day and a part of your 6th grade responsibilities as the school sempai.
Another thing this really drove home for me was the universality of the entire process. Your Dad could be the mayor. Or the Head of the Town Council. Or a restauranteur. Or a janitor. It doesn't matter. Everybody walks to school.
That's not the only time that everybody has to do something. Everyone has to take part in the Sports Day. (At home we had Sports too, but only the athletes participated.) Everyone has to take part in souji- the daily cleaning of the school. Everyone does something for the Bunkasai- School Culture festival.
And that in essence is the difference between Japan and the West.
For us, life is about leaving your mark, having a claim to fame, making yourself the best you can be, getting the best job you can.
In Japan, life is about being a part of something. You're a part of your family. A part of your elementary, middle, high school. A part of your school club. A part of your university. A part of the company you work for. A part of Japan.
You can even see it in the way you say your name. Group first, then last name, then first name. Star Wars no Watanabe Ken. From most important to least.
And you don't further yourself. You further your group. Your sempai (elders). Your sensei(teachers).
And it all starts with a line of ducklings learning to walk this way.