April in Nakatsugawa: "Some Kids Had No Food."

When you watch a Japanese movie or anime about student life, you might often notice that the opening scene is set in April. The scenes are usually filled with cherry blossoms to express the freshness, happiness, and poignancy of spring. They are set in April because that is when the new school year starts in Japan. So was the case with Nakatsugawa until 2013 when the last remaining school, combining elementary school and junior high school had to shut down because they had only eight students left.

In earlier times,  there were so many children that each district in Nakatsugawa had its own “bunko,” which is a branch school for primary school kids when the main school is too far away to walk to. There were originally 14 districts in Nakatsugawa. 

A photo of a classroom in the middle of a session taken by Ito Jintaro in the 1930s.

This photo was taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930. It shows a classroom in the middle of a lesson. The teacher was from a family that owned a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, in the Shimoyachi district.

A group photo of children and their teacher in front of the school

And here are some children and the teacher in front of their school. The boy sitting in the front row second from the left is Mr. Oda, who is now 90 years old. 

As you can tell from the picture, it wasn't exactly a time of great prosperity.  

Ito Nobuko, who is now 81 years old, runs a farm house bed and breakfast named Irori in the Iwakura district of Nakatsugawa. This is how she recollects her school days. 

“My primary school was Iwakura Bunko. There were eight kids in the same year as me. All the kids from first grade up to the fourth grade used to sit in the same classroom. There were 45 of us in total.  We only had one woman teacher for all 45 of us. I still remember having to wait for a very long time for the teacher to come to where my classmates were sitting for the lesson.

“Back then, it was not easy to secure food. Unlike now, where lunch is provided at school, we all had to take a lunch box from home. There were some kids who were not able to bring lunch because they had no food at home. During lunch hour, these kids would stay outside the school to kill time and come back when the lunch break was over. 

“From the fifth grade onward, we had to go to the main school, which was in the Shimoyachi district. We had to walk four kilometers every day. It was tiresome to walk all that way, but since I was with my classmates it was quite fun as well. We used to pick flowers at the side of the path and gather wild vegetables that we found on the way.

“When I had to go to junior high school, it was another school with kids from all the districts in one place. There were 83 kids in my year. Right now only three of us remain in Nakatsugawa. Looking at how Nakatsugawa no longer has a school and looking back at my junior high school days, the time when there were 83 kids in a class seems unbelievable.”

Right now there are around 10 children under the age of 16 in Nakatsugawa. They all have to travel about 30 minutes one way to primary school or 45 minutes to junior high school. 

The school building in Nakatsugawa is still in great condition. The locals did not want it to go to waste, and so every year they organize a sports event and cultural event for everyone in the community. People from nearby towns and villages also come along because they have fun contests where people compete to weave rice straw into cords and make temaki sushi. You might expect the younger and more energetic people to be quickest to weave, but  it is often the elderly with more experience who bag the prizes. 

With the temaki sushi, about 100 people make a super long sushi roll. They all have to roll it at exactly the same time. That’s pretty difficult, but being difficult is what makes it so much fun!

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