What Are School Culture Festivals Really Like?

by Justin Sevakis,

Nadia asked:

I was wondering if Japanese school cultural festivals are really a thing and if so are they really like they are in anime? So will there be the usual maid café/haunted house, and does everyone stay over at the school? Who's allowed to attend them (as a foreigner would it be totally weird for me to go to one) and are they really popular?

Nearly every school in Japan, from preschool to college, hosts an annual cultural festival, or "bunkasai". Bunkasai are intended to motivate the students and show off their artistic and organizational abilities to family members, as well as for members of the public that might be interested in attending the school. As you might imagine, this looks very different at different age groups. Preschools and kindergartens more or less just exhibit what a typical day is like. Elementary schools usually put on a school play (gakugeikai), and in recent years will perform those every other year, alternating with student art festivals or music concerts.

Obviously as anime fans we're more familiar with the ones in high school and middle school. Anime actually depicts these fairly realistically (except in comedies). Every year the school typically sets a theme or a slogan, and each class is tasked with putting on some sort of event around that theme. The class votes and decides what to do: many put on cafés, haunted houses, plays and sometimes even concerts. Some host tea ceremonies. In addition to the individual classes, members of certain clubs will also put on exhibitions or events, which can cause students to get pulled in multiple directions. The classes usually use their own classrooms, but with clubs involved too, the entire school often gets transformed.

The general idea is that each class event is organized and coordinated entirely by the students, with little or no help from teachers, who are there nonetheless to supervise. These events can be quite a bit of work, and students often stay very late to try and get everything ready in time. Most schools have some sort of "big event" as well: a dance, a bonfire, or even an event put on by the teachers. Every school has its own unique flavor (and rules). It's a lively time at school, meant to strengthen class bonds and foment lasting friendships. Participation is mandatory.

On the college level bunkasai (gakuensai) are even more ambitious, and since college doesn't have homerooms, they're more about that school's club culture. These are larger-scale public exhibitions of that particular college, so depending on the school these can be quite intense. Famous schools like Tokyo University are visited by alumni, and people come from all over to visit them. Celebrities are trotted out. Since Japanese schools are so competitive, these festivals are important in that they offer a school the opportunity to show off just what makes them unique and interesting.

Bunkasai are generally held around the end of October or early November, often to coincide with "Culture Day", a national holiday on November 3rd that celebrates the arts and academics. These festivals take place over two days, usually Fridays and Saturdays. The first day is usually just for the students and their families, while the second days are usually open to the public. Each school varies, so you'd have to check, but chances are you can totally visit one.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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