Choir Competition and Individuality in Japanese and American Schools

Last week, it was my school’s choir competition. Choir competitions are a big deal at schools in Japan, and almost all schools, public and private, host them annually. The students prepare and practice for months, and on the day of, classes are canceled, parents come to show their support, and the students show off all of their hard work. Each class performs one song, and is judged by a panel of principals, teachers, and senpai (older) students. Winning is a huge accomplishment for the students.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-9-49-36-pmThis was my first choir competition in Japan, and it was a really interesting experience to be a part of, especially since I was asked to sing a song with the other teachers in Japanese (at 5 pm the day before). So, I faked my way through a song I didn’t know in a language I don’t speak, on stage in front of the whole school. But aside from this ridiculousness, watching the choir competition made me think about some important differences between Japanese and American schools, and the focus on the group versus the individual. The closest equivalent to Japanese choir competitions in American schools would be talent shows. Comparing these two events really highlights the difference between the collective mindset, discipline, and cooperation that is fostered in Japanese schools, and the individuality, freedom, and personal self-expression that is encouraged in American schools.

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Parents gathering before the competition.

In American school talent shows, it’s all about the individual student showcasing their unique interests and skills. You’ll find a wide variety of different acts, from singing, dancing, and juggling, to magic shows, karate, pogo-sticking, and stand-up comedy. You name it, a kid has probably done it at a talent show somewhere. Students are not required to participate unless they want to, and it’s completely up to them what they want to do. There are, of course, some group acts, but these groups are decided upon and arranged by the students themselves. And there are usually more solo acts – just one student on stage displaying their unique talents. There is a huge amount of freedom for personal choice and expression, and individual students have an opportunity to shine in the spotlight.

In Japanese school choir competitions, on the other hand, it’s all about the group. The students work together to create a performance as a whole, and are judged as a whole. The girls stand in neat rows, in the same position, and sing in unison. In their identical uniforms, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Except for the piano player and the conductor, everyone is doing the essentially the same thing. The competition leaves very minimal room for personal choice or expression. Everyone in the whole school has to participate, regardless if they like choir or are naturally good at singing. The students can choose their own song (as a class), but to me they all sounded quite similar. The performances were precise and well-rehearsed, and the impressive thing about them was how coordinated everyone was.

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One of the classes onstage.

There’s something to be said for both the polished group acts of Japanese choir competitions, and the unique solo acts of American talent shows. The beautiful harmonies of a choir simply cannot be sung alone, and by working together, the students create something bigger than the sum of its parts. They practice cooperation, teamwork, and discipline, all of which are valuable life skills. That said, I’ll admit that the choir competion left something lacking for me. After about the fourth song, it all started to sound the same, and I found myself getting a little bored. All of the choir performances were objectively quite good, but there was nothing really remarkable or dynamic about any of them. I would have liked to see some of the variety and excitement of an American talent show. There is something so inspirational in the American mentality that everyone has something special about them, and should have the opportunity to follow this passion. Talent shows offer a platform for individuals to show off this uniqueness, and even if every performance isn’t perfect, the show is certainly fun to watch.

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3 thoughts on “Choir Competition and Individuality in Japanese and American Schools

  1. On my 3rd try to leave this comment! Thanks for sharing about the choir competition, quite interesting. I think the Japanese approach is aimed to instill a consensual, team approach to creative problem solving, with the pressure being the obligation to perform. Each person on each choir becomes a player of value toward accomplishment of the goal. In the American talent show, some people are not even expected to have sufficient talent or desire to perform to even get on stage, so aside from teamwork expected in sports or science experiments, not much attention to the notion that everyone has a voice to contribute to the goal of accomplishment. And it does seem true to me that while the USA yields amazing individuals and highly developed individual talents, we are less skilled at developing affordable, reliable cars, say, or a collective sense of collective value, hence levees are left untended in poor areas, but not in rich. Perhaps we could learn something from the Japanese and trim our sails a bit or or simply have not only talent shows, but also required choir contests too. Who would go? Start them young enough and parents and families will!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree with you that there are many valuable lessons that are instilled in students in Japanese schools. Learning to work as a member of a team towards accomplishing a goal is a very important skill, and Japanese students learn it well. I think America could definitely learn something from the Japanese work ethic, cooperation, and discipline that is apparent in choir competitions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I’d love to know more about the Japanese work ethic. Your perspective is one I’m coming to admire for bringing all the facts to the discussion and yet leaving room for people to think and decide for themselves. Very inclusive, Ms. Emma. Of course, I am your doting aunt, but I’m fairly certain my perception is good on this… Love & hugs!

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