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.
This 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.
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.
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.