A School Closing in Japan

IMG_6309_1What is the importance of a school? To small communities like the ones in rural Japan a school can be the very heart. In a land where the PTA has a far more visual and important role, the school acts as a focal point for community events and networking among parents, local government, and even the large population of elderly people not comprising many rural areas in Japan.

The past two weeks marked a transition in Japan, with the financial and school years changing between March and April. On Kume Island, with a population that has decreased by about 87 people per year for the last 23 years (that’s more than 2000 people), the end of the school year was far more significant.

Kume Island Population Graph

With declining population the local cost of operating three junior highs finally became too much of a burden. This year both Kumeshima Junior High and Nakazato Junior High closed after sixty-six years as a center for the local communities, communities that have had their own history and culture for hundreds of years. The remaining students from the two schools are now consolidated at Kumi Junior High which opened yesterday on what was Nakazato Junior High. As you might expect, it wasn’t so much of a closing for that community as a change, and the difference was reflected in the closing ceremonies for both schools.

A Ceremony to Say Goodbye

IMG_6104_1With sixty-six years of history there have been thousands of students through both schools, along with hundreds of teachers and many principals. To have your Alma Mater suddenly disappear is a hard thing, especially when so many memories are attached to the grounds and buildings where you went to school. For the people of the Gima and Kadekaru neighborhoods where Kumeshima Junior High was, the loss is more profound. The children of the area will now have to travel by bus, car, or bike to the new school meaning more time away from home. School activities will happen farther away making it difficult for the elderly population to participate easily and leaving the previous PTA as only a small part of a newer, larger group.

To say goodbye, the school held a closing ceremony, and although there were only about thirty students, several hundred participants came from all over Japan to observe and remember, including past principals and PTA chiefs. The ceremony itself took about an hour, with speeches from the Town Mayor, Principal, Board of Education and students. Several songs were sung and the school flag was returned to the town for retirement.


Following the ceremony was perhaps the more important party. Local groups of past Kumeshima graduates entertained while the attendees ate, drank, and remembered. There were more speeches and certificates, but the most important aspect was the last hurrah of a community that will never be the same.

IMG_6383_1The next day, Nakazato Junior High had a similar ceremony, but although the student population was far higher, fewer people attended. Though no less important, the change will have less of an impact on the schools students and community, which was reflected in the mood of the celebration afterward.

Not All is Negative

Though there are a lot of difficult issues with the closing of the school, not all is bad. As you might imagine after such a long time, both school buildings are in need of repair, but with falling populations it is beyond the town’s ability to build a new school. Instead, funding was found to renovate Kumi Junior High to provide a fresh start.

IMG_6099_1Kume Island was historically divided into two magiri during the Ryukyu Kingdom. This separation fostered competition which drove the two sides of the island to outdo each other in sports and festivals. Since the town’s incorporation over ten years ago, that sense of competition has waned, creating a larger community, but one in which the individual communities have less importance. Going forward, the friendly rivalry between two schools may help to invigorate the local communities all around the island.

With Kumi Junior High’s opening, the school will have a fresh look, new modernized uniforms, a new song and school logo. The renovations will also continue, ensuring the students have a safe and effective place to learn for another sixty years.