Firsthand account reveals it’s not all pillow fights and gossip sessions.
Like many countries around the world, students in Japan have the option to live in a dormitory while studying at university. That was the case for our reporter Saya Togashi, who lived in a women’s dormitory when she was at uni, and according to her, it wasn’t an idyllic setup where young women exchanged clothes and love stories. It was a tough time for her, as it is for many students who may not be suited to communal living arrangements, so she’d like to pull the curtain back and share with us what it was really like to live there.
▼ For starters, it wasn’t like this.
Saya says it was a couple of decades ago when she lived at the dorm, but given that the traditions and rules had already been in place for years before she was there, she doubts whether a lot would have changed in the years since. Of course, dormitories may differ depending on the setup, but Saya belonged to a “self-governing dormitory“, where the management was entrusted to the hands of the students, with no external supervision from an adult such as a dormitory superintendent or manager. At the time, the legal age of adulthood was 20, and although it’s since been lowered to 18, the idea of truly becoming an adult at age 20 is still prevalent in society, due to the annual nationwide Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) public holiday, where those who turn 20 take part in special seijinshiki celebrations.
In a self-governing dormitory, the student representatives form a self-governing association, and they also clean the house themselves. Only meals were prepared by external cooks in the form of a consignment arrangement by the residents’ association.
The living room was a four-person room with bunk beds, and it was designed to mix grades as much as possible. The dormitory fee was about 25,000 yen (US$171.78) a month, which was surprisingly cheap, even by standards of the time.
▼ Saya’s room in the dorm.
The dormitory had a long history dating back to the Showa period (1926-1989), and the building was so old that stories of ghosts were commonly told. However, it’s the many traditions, passed down from generation to generation, that stay with Saya to this day.
The first of these traditions was what she calls “Learning Stunts“. The acquisition of these “stunts” was the first obstacle that new students had to overcome, and though they might consist of short plays and recreational activities, similar to what you’d find in a Boy Scout’s organisation, in Saya’s dormitory, they were dances.
New students had to learn the dormitory song that had been passed down in the dormitory for generations and the choreography for dancing to the music. Then they would perform these dances in large groups at seasonal events.
For a while after entering the school, Saya often had to rush back to the dormitory and practice the dance straight after her lectures. Even those who might prefer to go off to their part-time jobs or club activities had to participate in dance practice.
▼ No time for anything but dance.
Following the examples of the “senpai”, or senior students, Saya practiced the dance day after day, and she and her fellow students were desperate to learn the steps because practice would never end until they’d memorised the choreography.
Looking back on it now, Saya believes the purpose of these stunts is probably to strengthen the bond between new students and help them to become friends, and it seems that some youth hostels and rider houses (super budget dorms in Japan) still have similar customs.
Once they’d learnt the steps, Saya and her fellow dorm residents were required to perform at numerous events, so a lot of time was spent on planning additional things like singing, drama, and one-shot performances. Though at the time Saya didn’t think the whole dance thing was worth anything, she can see the benefit it might have in training students to work together in teams when they enter the corporate world, and it might come in handy for any performances they might face at company bonenkai (year-end parties).
▼ Saya dutifully dancing with the other dorm residents.
One of the most surprising things Saya came across was the bathing etiquette at the dorm. The dormitory had a large public bath, and it was supposed to be used within a set time. When entering the large public bath, new students were required to speak loudly, almost like a cheerleader, towards the people already in the bathing area. Both parties would be naked at the time, of course.
Saya remembers having to open the glass door of the bathing area and announce who she was and where she was from, shouting, “I’m from xxx high school in xxx Prefecture! I’m a first-year undergraduate! Saya Togashi is entering!!” This procedure was known as “Storm”, and its roots appear to stem from student activities during the old high school days of yore.
▼ People in the bath would reply “Yo-o!” or “Yo-shi!” (“okay” or “good”) and only after receiving this answer were students then allowed to enter the bathing area.
Both “Stunts” and “Storm” were remnants from a time when university life was seen as a social and ideological collective. Sharing patterns of behaviour like this were said to increase unity and solidarity amongst students.
However, it was a big culture shock for Saya. This was neither an employee dormitory nor a sports team dormitory, and even though they all went to the same university, there were thousands of students, so in the grand scheme of things the only thing the dorm residents had in common was that they lived in the same house. She didn’t feel that these patterns of behaviour would unite all the students, so much as make other students feel as if the dormitory women were in a separate group to them.
▼ Now we move on to another practice in solidarity with Compulsory Joint Parties.
There were many events in the dormitory and everyone was expected to participate so there was no option to be absent. Just some of the parties Saya remembers are the “welcome party for new students,” the “year-end party,” and the “farewell party”, which were held jointly every year with the nearby men’s dormitory.
For Saya, these parties all took place in an era when students weren’t really using mobile phones so the only way to get in touch with anyone you were interested in was to call the dormitory. There was a “telephone room” in the dormitory, and students took turns answering the phone. When a call would come in from the outside, a hall announcement would be made, so everyone could hear who was calling and how many times they’d called.
▼ No sliding into the DMs back in those days.
After the welcome party for new students, there would commonly be a “phone rush”, with announcements being made left right and centre. This would make it clear as to which women in the dorm were being constantly called, and Saya would overhear senior students discussing it, saying things like, “I see xxx is number one this year”, which turned it into some sort of popularity contest. As time went on, word of who ended up in a relationship after these parties would spread at the speed of light through the senior student network.
Saya’s least fond memory of dorm life, however, came at the end, after she moved out of the dormitory.
Though she could understand that the rostered household chores such as cleaning duty, newspaper duty, and telephone duty, made sense, and some of the stricter rules, such as the ones at the cafeteria, where they were limited to one bowl of rice and weren’t allowed any refills, were designed for the good of the group, she just couldn’t get used to the rather rigid environment at the dorm, no matter how hard she tried.
At first, she thought she might have to quit university altogether, but in the end, she decided to move out of the dorm before finishing her degree. In order to move out early, she had to submit a letter of apology with an explanation, and then she was able to leave the dormitory.
While she was glad to have moved out, Saya later heard through the grapevine that after she left, her handwritten apology was posted for a while in the toilet used by all the dormitory students.
Though Saya’s time at the dorm was less than idyllic, her seniors were very proud of the traditions of the dormitory, and she says there was no violence or abusive language while she was there. It was clear that none of the rules were meant to be spiteful or to throw juniors under the bus, so to speak, but to promote unity and preserve tradition.
The majority of students became used to this type of environment, made lifelong friends, and stayed there until graduation. Saya believes she just didn’t have the right mentality for that type of lifestyle.
Saya also heard that these days, the dormitory rooms are now private rather than shared, and even have their own kitchen and coin-operated shower, and the communal dining room doesn’t exist anymore. She thinks this would make living there easier now, although she still wouldn’t be able to stand all those longstanding traditions.
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