Screenshot from an ad by Google: “your memories on the top page”
From time to time, we all think back to days of yore. So far, the time I spent as a cog in the machine has yet to warp my memory to a point where I reflect upon my university years as an alcohol-fueled stroll through the Garden of Eden. Still, I cannot help but drift away on a cloud of nostalgia every so often. For this Ikiji, I want to talk about omoide-zukuri (思い出づくり, literally: ‘making memories’) and the role it plays in the life of many Japanese university students. I will draw on my own experiences participating in several student clubs when I was living in Nagasaki and Kyoto.
During this time I noticed that students were not using memories solely as fodder for light-hearted conversation, but also appeared to be actively engaged in making them. University clubs are run by students and are dedicated to a certain activity, ranging from the tea ceremony to music, football or Japanese chess. Because many students join a club in their first year and stick with it until they graduate four years later, the club environment provides the ideal breeding ground for bonding experiences and the creation of unforgettable memories. But why exactly would anyone be actively engaged in making memories, and what does this process entail?
First, we need to take a look at the Japanese education system. From the moment a child sets foot in elementary school, the path to adult society’s warm embrace is mostly set in stone. In earlier decades, getting a job after graduating high school was a fairly common choice, but in this day and age, more than 70% of all students proceed to enroll in an institute of higher education.  In Japan, higher education is divided over senmongakkō, or ”vocational training schools”, and universities. In Japan, the definition of university encompasses a wide range of institutes of higher learning, which are ranked according to prestige. In a country where more than 50% of students enroll in university, high school students are subjected to rigorous entrance exams where cramming is the key to gain access to a high-ranking university.
Four Years of Freedom
As the vast majority of high school students move on to higher education, the rhythm of life changes drastically. Although student life in the Netherlands certainly deserves an honorable mention for laying a solid foundation for the alcoholism that is to plague the brilliant minds of the future, in Japan, the contrast between high school and university is even more apparent. Whereas the typical high school student is subjected to rigid schedules, school uniforms and cram sessions for university entrance exams, life at university becomes something of a safe haven before said student sails out into the torrential waves of adult society.
Much like in the West, the Japanese university student is largely free to arrange his own schedule. Besides studying, many focus on club activities and/or a part-time job. For what may be the first and last time, students enjoy a new-found sense of freedom that lets them choose how they want to develop themselves.
Due to the fact that university is offset by high school on the one side and adult society on the other, this brief period of freedom is accompanied by a sense of urgency. Traditionally, many Japanese companies hire a fresh batch of students the month they graduate university.  Apart from the tabula rasa factor, age homogeneity is considered desirable because company hierarchy is often determined by an employee’s age (see also our blog on keigo: Japanese polite speech). Although science majors may proceed to get a Masters degree, the vast majority of students bid campus life farewell at the end of their four year undergraduate program.
Milan and I experienced this sense of urgency first-hand when we joined a music club in Kyoto. In the Spring of 2011, the cherry petals started to scatter as we stepped into an izakaya – a type of restaurant that pairs small bites with big drinks – to celebrate the start of the new academic year. It quickly became apparent that this particular club had a strictly defined hierarchy where younger members were to indulge the whims of their seniors. At this club, members quit after their third year in order to focus on their transformation from rainbow-haired rogues into responsible adults.
“Back in my day, last month…”
This particular evening marks the day when the third year seniors rise to the top of the food chain. Every senior that steps into the room is greeted by rhythmic shouts of otsukare! (a linguistic multi-tool that can mean, depending on context, “good work”, “good day, friend/colleague” or “see you tomorrow”). This greeting drones on until the latest arrival to the banquet slays his first beer. From this point on until the end of the year, the seniors rule the club and are put in the spotlight at live shows, drinking parties and trips. For them, all of the ingredients for an unforgettable year are in place. Terms such as omoide and natsukashii (nostalgia; longing for days gone by) are often used to reminisce about the past, although rather than strictly referencing the olden days, this may just as well refer to a memorable event several months ago.
During my time with this club, I got to experience several of these standout moments. The one that stuck with me the most, was the university festival held in the holiday season. This festival marked two full days of live performances, as well as the biggest and last campus-wide show for the seniors. Although technically preceded by an audition for all bands, it quickly became apparent who would be occupying the main stage. On the day itself, the bands get on stage and regale their listeners with tales of their youthful glory days at the club – without a doubt the best period in their lives, they say wistfully. The months that follow are host to many smaller performances, drinking parties and a camp in a chartered hotel. Tears are shed indiscriminately of the venue.
The emphasis that is put on the hierarchical junior-senior system is different for every club, but in general seniors take the lead and enjoy a certain amount of respect. The drinking party Milan and I joined at the beginning of our time in Kyoto meant the start of a special year for the third year students. As the year progresses, the bittersweet realization that the end is nigh makes its way to the center stage. The leap into society and adulthood signifies a major lifestyle shift, and to me it sometimes feels slightly unreal to hear my friends talk about the “good old days” when referencing events barely two years old.
Conversely, I reckon that omoidezukuri is not without its charm. The concept fits neatly into the framework of mono no aware (literally: “the pathos of things”) – a concept that perfectly befits works of art created in the Heian-period (794 – 1185). During this period, the cultural elite of yesteryear preferred to live in areas inaccessible to the peasantry, in order to ensure ample time could be spent peddling across rivers and composing poems beneath withering cherry trees, softly weeping at the transience of life. Aiming to make the most out of every moment is a noble endeavor. It is a pity that in Japan, these moments seem mostly confined to the university campus.
Picture of the main stage at a Doshisha University festival in 2014 (source).
 Genda Yūji. “The Underlying Causes of Job Insecurity.” In A Nagging Sense of Job Insecurity. Tokyo: International House of Japan, Inc, p.10, 2005.