Japan is a country of traditions. In recent history one of the biggest and most fun traditions for young students in Japan is the hosting the gakuenasai/bunkasai, or in English, school festival. If you are one of those who are aware of Japanese culture or current events then you may already know about the school festival. Every year millions of students across Japan spend part of the year preparing for their school’s annual festival. These festivals take on a variety of forms each with their own theme and steeped in their own schools traditions.
High School’s Bunkasai
The timing of the festivals is all dependent on each individual school. Sometimes the festival will take place in the Summer or even in the Fall. Every year the schools create themes and slogans for their festival to draw in crowds. Japanese high schools are often broken up into smaller classes within their grade levels. Each of these smaller classes is usually responsible for putting on their own booth or activity. They utilize their own classrooms, conference rooms, or whatever space is available. Common ideas include, cafes, haunted houses, small plays…etc. The students of each class vote and decide on their own theme and manage the work amongst themselves. Costumes as wells menu items are all prepared and made by the students with minimal to no help from adults. Of course the teachers do provide guidance as well as final approval for ideas, with the occasional hands-on help. Extra curricular clubs also work together to put on their own productions.
Depending on the high school there is usually a big event that is the highlight of the festival for the students. In some cases it is a large bonfire/dance that everyone participates in, or in some cases it is a costume contest for the homeroom teachers. Most of these festivals are actually open to the public. The general timeline of the events run over the course of two days. Generally the first day is for students, faculties, and staffs. The second day is usually open to the public. So while it is a great experience for the students, it may be just as good of an experience for you to try out.
Compared to the high school level of school festival, the ones that happen at colleges are made for the public. Whereas in high school the focus is mainly on the smaller classes producing something, at the college level it is sports clubs, and other clubs that are producing things. This means that faculty involvement is minimal and these festivals are almost entirely organized and run by the students. The scale is also another key difference. At the university level, crowds are much larger. Even those who aren’t students come and visit. These festivals also attract families from the surrounding areas, and the festivals put on by well known schools draws crowds from all over Japan. These festivals are also a chance for more academic focused groups to show off current research and other projects. Standout schools like Tokyo University is famous for their high level booths and productions. Often times to drive up attendance, universities will invite celebrities, comedians, and other popular personalities to make an appearance at their festivals.
In my opinion both are definitely worth experiencing. The high school festival although smaller in scale, offers a more intimate view of the work put in. Also if you have never been to a Japanese high school this is one of the few occasions where you can freely visit. The university school festival is on a different level though. The students really go all out and some school festivals rival big name Japanese Matsuri in terms of production value, popularity, and attendance. If you happen to be in Japan and come across some of these school festivals I highly recommend you spend a little time there. It is a great insight into a unique part of Japanese education and culture.