Thursday, 5 January 2012

The 56th Kurashi-no-bunshu

First a very Happy New Year to you, and my apologies for taking so long to write this. I promised a few people quite some time ago that I would "do it in the next few days", and I think I've been using the festive period as an excuse not to find time to do it. Anyway, here we are, and here we go...

Every summer the Kure Education Department along with the Chugoku Shinbun (newspaper) and Momiji Bank sponsor a composition competition - Kurashi-no-bunshu - for the pupils of the forty-four primary schools in the Kure area. In the first instance the teachers of each class choose the best compositions to submit for judging.

It is probable that every child in Kure has to write a diary entry every weekend, and for most of the children the writing tends to be along the lines of "We went here, we did this, and we had a good time". Our son Tadashi seemed to be developing his own style - his diary entries almost always start with a sound he has heard, and then he explains what is behind the sound.

Thousands of children write compositions for the Kurashi-no-bunshu, and there is an award for the top composition, four runners-up awards and around fifteen third prizes for each grade, and over a hundred "honourable mention" awards. Every story that receives an award is published in a 280-page book.

In 2010 Tadashi received an honourable mention in his first year at primary school, and obviously we were delighted.

And then in the autumn he pretty much knocked our socks off by winning the top prize for primary two pupils. My wife called to tell me while I was driving home from Hiroshima, and I immediately had to phone my parents. Thrilled to bits might just described how we felt.

I'm lucky enough to have a group of very high level English speakers in a weekly class, and of late they have been translating articles from the Chugoku Shinbun. Tadashi's composition was printed in the newspaper, so my class said they would translate it for me. Here it is, complete with the judge's comments...

Sharpening Pencils with a Knife

“Oh, no, it’s broken again!” And we don’t have a pencil sharpener.

Last year, when I was in primary one, my mum used to sharpen my pencils every day. When I started primary two I decided to sharpen my own pencils with the sharpener in my pencil case. But the points often broke when I was sharpening the pencils, and the sharpener was difficult to use.

And “snap!” - the pencils often broke while I was writing. I thought it was really annoying.
One day I wondered if using a knife would be better. I told my mum that I wanted to use a knife to sharpen pencils myself. My mum said, “Watch and I’ll show you how to do it.”
Snick, snick. In a flash she had sharpened a pencil. She was so good at it, and I

wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. I tried, but either the point was too long, or I nearly cut my index finger. However, I didn’t think I should give up, but do my best like I do when I eat mini tomatoes, which I really don’t like.
I sharpened pencils every day, and slowly I learned to do it as my mum showed me: don’t hold the pencil or knife pointing upwards because it’s dangerous;

move the knife slowly and gently, and keep your cutting hand steady. I learned that knives are dangerous, but also useful if I follow the rules.
Today, just like every day, I’ll sharpen my pencils with a knife.

Tadashi’s mother responded very well when he asked about sharpening his own pencils. This topic is interesting because these days very few children know how to sharpen pencils with a knife. After reading this story it is easy to imagine Tadashi doing his best even when something is difficult, like eating the mini tomatoes which he doesn’t like. The story ended with his determination to continue sharpening pencils every day and I wanted to shout out, “Yes! You can do it!” It’s a lovely story.

And so to the award ceremony (I wanted to say "prize-giving", but it conjures up completely the wrong image) held at a splendid venue in early December, and for me, what a monumental let-down. Given the excitement that news of Tadashi's achievement was met with, I hoped that the award ceremony would be a joyous celebration, but it was so far from that I could hardly believe it.

Of course the sponsors' dignitaries were there to make speeches and present awards, but what, to my mind, a strange way of doing things. The main prize winners had to sit across the stage from the dignitaries and listen to the speeches and be given their awards while some ghastly funereal music was playing in the background.

When Tadashi's name was called, he marched out to the middle of the stage, bowed to his dignitary and was given two boxes, both of which he was immediately obliged to hand to a lady standing next to him for that purpose. She left the stage with his "prizes" and he returned to his seat empty-handed. I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it.

Look at the happy, smiling faces in this picture! The lady standing in the background is the one who is about to whisk away Tadashi's "prizes". And that isn't a medal around his neck... it's an ID badge.

When the event finished Tadashi was given a bag with his "goodies" in to take home. They were: an engraved plaque, a certificate, a medal in a box with no ribbon, and a copy of the newspaper with his composition in it.

Couldn't the whole event have been conducted with just a little razzmatazz? Couldn't they have played music that might appeal to primary school pupils? Couldn't they have put ribbons on the medals and presented them Olympic-style rather than popping them in those bags like an afterthought? Couldn't they have given the winners some kind of "literary" prize like dictionaries or book tokens?

Ah, well...I had a sneaking suspicion that the day wouldn't be what I hoped, so we had a "prize-giving" at home,

and I think Tadashi was delighted with the new Lego set I bought for him.

Later on it also only took me less than five seconds to attach a ribbon to his medal so he could wear it.

Of course, the competition isn't really about prizes, but I can't imagine anyone who was at the award ceremony will look back on it as a great day.

The plaque and certificate, by the way, had to be taken to school so the headmaster could display them in his room, and weren't returned to Tadashi until the winter holidays.

In fairness, Tadashi didn't seem bothered by what I thought was at best a very disappointing event. As we were leaving the award ceremony he was already wondering out loud what he would write about so that he could win the award again next year!