Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Annual Student Banishing

Today was a very special day at school. Since it's the end of the school year, all the students are herded into the school gymnasium for what's known in Japanese as the "Sotsugyoushiki" or "Punishment Ceremony". This yearly event is primarily designed to punish the entire school for everything they've done wrong in the past year, from running in corridors to falling asleep in class. Ironically, around 10% of the students actually fall asleep during the ceremony itself.

The ceremony is particularly hard on the third years. A list of their crimes is read out, after which each student must stand up and shout "Hai", (meaning "Yes, I did it"). Then, at the end of the ceremony, the third year students are summarily banished from the school forever, as the rest of the school and staff applaud them mockingly. Having experienced the Punishment Ceremony two times previously, many of them simply cannot take the gruelling ordeal for a third time, and throughout the proceedings individuals will spontaneously burst into tears for no reason. It's a harrowing sight.

After being forced to decorate the school in red and white (symbolising blood and sweat) the students are made to endure temperatures as low as 5 degrees for up to two hours, wearing nothing but a thin, nylon school uniform and sandals. Local dignitaries and teachers sit either side of the student body, chiefly to block their escape route. After the the List of Crimes is read out the students are numbed into submission by half a dozen or so brain-destroyingly dull speeches, designed to sap the listeners' will to live. Once the verbal bombardment is over with, the students' minds are once again malleable enough to endure another year of conditioning. I mean "education". For the unlucky third years though there is nothing left but the long walk of shame into Cursed Earth which lies beyond the school gates...

As for me, I was faced with a stark choice. As part of my role as prison guard I must also endure the intense cold, but how best to overcome it? The solution lies in something called "hokairo".

A long time ago Japanese heating inventors took an unorthodox path in the "making things warm" industry. Rather than choosing to make whole rooms warm (by using say, I don't know, "central heating" or something) they decided instead to leave the rooms cold and just make everything else warm. Hence the reason why we have heated tables ("kotatsu"), heated toilet seats and heated carpets, but no radiators. The most extreme development of this "let's heat everything except the room itself" policy is the hokairo, which consists of a pad filled with a gel-like substance which heats up the moment you remove it from the packet. The hokairo can then be stuck to any part of the body which needs a bit of heating.

These things saved my life during the Punishment Ceremony. I'd learned from my near-fatal freezing experience at last year's ceremony, and decided to stick six of the pads on my hands, feet and lower back, ensuring I was toasty-warm all throughout the castigation.

Well, my hands, feet and lower back were warm anyway, the rest of me was freezing. Hooray for hokairo!

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