Before the school year changeover period in March, I was under the impression that I had attended several enkais while in Japan. I was incorrect. The small parties of about 10 teachers in restaurants near our school, which ended by 9 pm turned out not to be the extent of Japanese teachers' socialising.
My first real enkai was to be the school closing ceremony around the end of March. It was held in a hotel in Yaizu (shock, horror) on the coast, right beside the same Pacific ocean that had terrifyingly risen up to devastate north eastern Japan earlier in the month. I was a little anxious about attending the enkai, but figured it would be rude to pull out. How glad I was that I didn't...
Having boarded a bus from school, I arrived at a palatial hotel at the edge of sheer cliff. Inside there were chandeliers, big fluffy carpets and staff casting suspicious glances at me amidst my Japanese colleagues. Our party room was at a corner of the hotel, so two of its walls were mostly taken up by windows looking out over the sea and Yaizu cliffs. I choose a random number and sat in the corresponding seat, luckily next to an English teacher. I stared at what I thought was a menu, but which turned out to be the evening's schedule, (no wonder there was barely any Katakana on it).
When all the teachers and office staff were seated at our immaculately set round tables, it was announced that we would take a group photo...hence everyone had to get up and shuffle to the end of the room. Reluctant as I was to turn my back to the coastline, it was required in order to face the camera. Thankfully, the growing darkness outside meant that my tsunami early warning system (seeing a tsunami as it approached) was decreasing in probable effectiveness...thus the balance of harms dictated that I shouldn't make a scene. In the staff photo, which now resides atop my fridge, I stand out as the only person not wearing a suit. Unfortunately, though I'm not the only person wearing a colour other than black, we're a small company and I have a bright red cardigan on. I really wasn't on top of things that week.
Back in our seats, the night progressed with speeches from each departing colleague and a succession of about 15 courses, each more suspicious and thrilling than the one before. Was it animal, vegetable or mineral? Raw or cooked? Sweet or savory? Several times, I'd convinced myself that this MUST be the desert course and bitten into some kind of fish, expecting a sweet taste. But couldn't I have asked my English-speaking neighbour? Nope. As soon as the speeches ended and dinner was being served, the majority of diners jumped up and began circling the high-ranking staff members, clutching beer bottles. It dawned on me that I should have read up on enkai etiquette beforehand. It was slowly coming back to me as I sat there alone, trying to identify/eat my food.
After a while I decided that I had to at least try pouring drinks for people. I did it once or twice for people at my table but for long periods of time I was the only one at it. In typical Japanese fashion, I researched my mission by observing my peers. They seemed be choosing whom to pour for purposefully, probably going for those they knew or their department heads. I noticed that Kocho Sensei (the principal) and the Kyoto Senseis (vice principals) had a constant cloud of inferiors milling around their chairs, willing them to drink up so they could refill their glasses. After the ritual, the pourer would make small talk with the pouree, something which I was woefully incapable of. If only I'd studied Japanese harder over the last 9 months...
Eventually, I plucked up my courage and grabbed a spare beer bottle. With a stroke of luck I noticed that the friendly Kyoto Sensei, (one always smiles at me and the other always glares, I figure it's a premeditated good cop/bad cop routine they've been keeping up all year), was unattended. Approaching him, I employed my standard Japanese interaction technique, muttering 'sumimasen' to get his attention. I held up the beer and he proffered his glass. I poured with both hands as I had witnessed others do. Mission accomplished!
Almost. He started talking to me in Japanese, beaming more than usual with alcohol induced friendliness added to his ordinarily welcoming features. I nodded and smiled in return, but of course when he paused for me to reply I had to say 'wakaru nae', I don't understand. He continued more slowly with gestures and in fairness to him I was totally complicit in his overestimating my Japanese ability on those evaluation forms a few months back so he wasn't to know any better. Ultimately, I had no choice but to change my short reply to 'wakaramashita', I understand. Indeed, it did occur to me that with the enthusiasm with which he was repeating the same thing over and over, he could only be thanking me for recontracting/not evacuating after March 11th. Despite concluding this important social interaction successfully, I couldn't help but feel a little bad...intently mulling over whether to revoke my offer of recontracting as I was.
Towards the end of the night, teachers took their seats again for a range of closing rituals. At one point everyone stood and we sung what I later learned was the school song. It was catchy, but I couldn't sing it now. After that, one of the younger staff members was invited to the stage, where he stood in what looked like a dramatic martial arts or tai chi stance and roared (yes that's the appropriate verb), a series or incomprehensible signifiers to my absolute bafflement but seemingly not to the surprise of anyone else present. The audience responded with a sequence of rhythmic claps, which I attempted to join in with (impromptu style!), but during which I inevitably embarrassed myself by noisily clapping out of time..oops.
The mood in the room was super genki (hyper and tipsy would also be appropriate adjectives) as the final rite of the night commenced. The whole staff (60+) made a long tunnel with two lines of people facing one another and joining hands together overhead. The tunnel started at the sea-facing windows and ended at the door out. The teachers leaving passed through the tunnel sharing words of farewell and quite the few tears with its component teachers. Most of those near me were either pissing themselves laughing or sobbing...it was an utterly bizarre scene given that I'd come to know my colleagues as subdued, middle-aged professionals.
It was also freaking awesome!
I can only hope that European schools hold these kind of ritual bonding parties, but I doubt it. It also goes to show that after 9 months I still have a lot of Japanese culture to experience!