TOPTokyo LifeTokyo Daddy Issues: Learning to Let Go (to Elementary School)

Tokyo Daddy Issues: Learning to Let Go (to Elementary School)

And swearing to stop worrying about these things until high school

By Andreas Neuenkirchen

Sometimes, when I’m too lazy to go grocery shopping in the morning or afternoon, I still get these thoughts: ‘Oh, I will do it when I pick up Hana.’ And then it hits me: I will not pick up Hana. Not today and not tomorrow. That era has ended. She is all grown-up now. A grown-up 6-year-old, at least, who doesn’t attend preschool anymore. Since April, Hana has been attending elementary school. Without my help. How did that happen?

Hana’s Got a Brand-New Bag

Preparations started early. One of the most contentious, almost political topics before sending your child to school is choosing the right bag. Better start the selection process at least a year before; otherwise, you’ll be left with scraps. I don’t remember what went into purchasing my schoolbag back in the day, but I’m sure it didn’t involve signing up for a private appointment at the schoolbag maker’s boutique after meticulously assessing stacks of catalogs. Admittedly, the need for an appointment was probably due to the peculiar nature of the new normal we live in currently, but it felt very exclusive. Like trying on wedding dresses in an American movie about rich people. Hana chose one of several pink tones, and it wasn’t until more than six months later that her model was actually delivered. An early start was of the essence.

Tokyo Daddy Issues Elementary School

We Stamped All Night

Japanese schools have rules and regulations most likely designed to keep parents busy and their minds off what’s to come. There are long lists of items to buy and everything has to be exactly in the indicated shape and color. Every item has to carry the student’s full name; some also have to be inscribed with their grade and class number. We used a service that provides name-engraved pencils, but everything else my wife and I had to either stamp or furnish with a sticker in long late-night labeling sessions.

Stamping all night reminded me of the preparations for Hana’s entrance into preschool, which seemed either a lifetime ago or yesterday. Then we stamped mostly diapers, this time it was, among other things, tablecloths. That’s growing up for you. I remember I enjoyed stamping then as I enjoyed stamping now, probably for the same reason: It was the one thing about the situation that I could control. In all other regards, I felt helpless when Hana was about to enter preschool. She had never been with anybody but us, I reasoned. How can we just dump her at a strange place, leave her in the hands of strangers for hours and hours, five times a week?

After three days, they were no longer strangers. Hana blossomed in preschool. We only had two of those typical drop-offs full of crying, screaming, negotiating, pleading and clawing. On the third day, she just happily ran off when we entered the premises, not so much as a quick look back to her dad. Sometimes she would even want to go on weekends, too.

Tokyo Daddy Issues Elementary School

Under the Flag

Still, this experience didn’t reassure me about her initiation into elementary school. On the contrary. Now I reasoned: When it comes to schools, she only knows her cozy, friendly, international, private preschool. How can we dump her in a public Japanese elementary school, where she will be drilled by unsmiling, uncaring, underpaid teachers and where she will stick out by genetic design, an obvious target for cruel, narrow-minded, pea-brained bullies?

I can’t say that my mind was immediately put at ease when we arrived at the school for the initiation ceremony. The first thing that greeted us was the Japanese flag fluttering proudly above the entrance (not too high, though, as we shall see). I thought: Is my poor baby entering military school? I’m not a big fan of flags, waving them, saluting them, or posing with them. Still, customs dictated that we had to take a picture with our daughter in front of the school gates. Due to my height, the Japanese flag hit me in the face several times. On the day my daughter was initiated into Japanese elementary school of all days. I’m sure there is some deep symbolism in there.

After the principal’s speech, my wife swooned over how friendly he seemed and how softly he spoke. That was true for most of his speech, but what stuck with me was his barking tone when he ordered his audience to stand, sit, or bow. Tomorrow would be Hana’s first actual day of school and I was mulling over exit strategies. Whisk her away to Germany, where at least she doesn’t have to stand and bow under the flag (not since the bad old days, believe it or not)? Research private schools and count money again? How about homeschooling? 

Tokyo Daddy Issues Elementary School

Leader of the Pack

Unlike back in preschool, the situation wasn’t resolved in three days. This time, Hana was doing great from Day One. The second day, she already refused to be taken to the school, walking proudly on her own, in her little yellow hat, with her giant pink schoolbag.

Granted, she enjoys gakudo, the afternoon entertainment provided by the school, more than shogakko, the actual school part, but who in their right mind wouldn’t? It turns out she is already the leader of a schoolyard gang. They call themselves the ‘Happy Happy Donuts Club.’ When we inquired about a classmate from our neighborhood, Hana said she doesn’t know her very well since she is not a member. Did we assess the bully scenario from the wrong angle? Will Hana be the one to cruelly exclude others? We asked her why the girl hadn’t joined. Hana said matter-of-factly: ‘Because she didn’t ask.’ We suggested Hana should offer.

I am not sure how the ‘Happy Happy Donuts Club’ board handled the affair in the end, but I know Hana and that girl now always walk to school together and pretty much everywhere else. ‘Like she used to walk everywhere with me,’ a tiny, sad voice inside of me adds.

Tokyo Daddy Issues Elementary School

A New Boy in her Life

As far as I know, the ‘Happy Happy Donuts Club’ doesn’t accept male members for the time being. Still, there are boys at the school. I noticed and Hana noticed. One day, when I asked her about her walk home, she said she walked with a boy. When I demanded more details, she said with a dreamy smile: ‘A funny boy.’ A funny boy, I see. I suppose he ‘makes her laugh.’ Not too long ago, I was the boy who made her laugh.

For now, though, I’m content with being the happiest father alive because my former baby is happy at school, has found friends and good teachers. Of course, I know this situation might not last forever, but I intend to swear off worrying until high school.

Oh no, high school…

Tokyo Daddy Issues Elementary School
Illustration by Rose Vittayaset

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