JIN-313 -- April Is the Freshest Month in Japan

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T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 313
Wednesday March 16, 2005 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: April Is the Freshest Month in Japan
+++Competition with the Army
+++An Abiding Tradition

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@@ VIEWPOINT: April Is the Freshest Month in Japan

"April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."
From "The Wasteland"

Eliot was a modern. The Japanese are decidedly not moderns.
In Japan, April is the freshest month, wreathing cherry trees
in clouds of pink, mixing ritual and hope, scattering the
ground with blossoms.

April's rituals include school entrance ceremonies. Nearly
all Japanese believe these have always been held while the
cherries were in blossom. However, until the latter half
of the Taisho Era (1912-26), Japanese high schools and
universities generally began the school term in September.

In the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) domain and temple
schools opened their doors whenever there was a need. The
succeeding Meiji Government established a system under
which the school year started in April. This was not,
however, mandatory, for which reason there was
considerable regional variation in school terms.
Institutions of higher learning in particular nearly all
began the school year from September. The correspondence
with the European scholastic year was meant to facilitate
the hiring of foreign instructors.

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+++Competition with the Army

In 1886 the Meiji Government adopted an April-March fiscal
year, the end result of several changes from a fiscal year
originally corresponding to the calendar year. The reason
is unclear, although it seems to have been related to the
due date for paying property taxes.

The year 1886 also witnessed another change. The deadline for
completing registration for induction in the army was moved up,
from September to April. Such being the case, it was possible
that the Higher Normal School for training teachers (today
Tsukuba University) would fall behind in recruitment that year
if it stuck with matriculation in September.

In order to tailor the school year to the fiscal year and to
compete with the army for talent, the Higher Normal School
shifted the start of the year to April. Local higher normal
schools followed suit. According to research of the late Hideo
Sato, a Nihon University professor, this was the origin of
vernal beginning of the school year in Japan.

In 1892 the Ministry of Education issued a directive
standardizing for elementary schools a year beginning in April.
Later the ministry extended the directive to cover middle
schools. High schools under the old system and universities
retained a school year with a September start. But around 1920
an April start became mandatory for all high schools and
universities. The reason was to close the gap between graduation
from middle school at the end of March and entrance to high
school in September.

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+++An Abiding Tradition

Officials in charge of postwar education reform, which took
place under the influence of the US-led Occupation authority,
considered synchronizing the start of the school year with that
of the school year in the West. However, the majority of
educators supported an April start, affirming a tradition with
roots in Meiji.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology
has begun encouraging universities to adopt an autumn matriculation
in line with globalization. However, only Waseda, International
Christian and a few other universities have made the shift.

The Japanese feel that spring, when plants bud and the
cherries bloom, is appropriate for fresh starts. Indeed young
mothers holding the hands of children en route to kindergarten
entrance ceremonies and young men and women in new suits on the
way to the first day of work are scenes typical of April. Here
tradition has trumped globalism. April continues to mix ritual
and hope.

--Burritt Sabin

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