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Published:October 22nd, 2009 11:46 EST
The Japanese Rummage Sale from Hell

The Japanese Rummage Sale from Hell

By Geoff Dean

 Matsuzawa Junior High School in the western suburbs of Tokyo, Japan holds some major "events" during a year. There is an annual sports day competition, a music "festival", and the annual school "bazaar" (In Japan, bazaar signifies an event that is half rummage sale and half bake sale, and, definitely, half-baked).

 The volunteers (every PTA member is required to volunteer for something so can they really be called volunteers?), including myself, gathered two hours ahead of the big event. We removed our shoes, put on the slippers we brought from home, and gathered at the center of the basketball court, as if ready for the tip-off. There were some 50 or so "volunteers", two of whom were male, including me, and one of whom was not Japanese, including me.

 The school principal thanked us all for coming, made some perfunctory comments about the weather, warned us not to be complacent about swine flu, and thanked us for coming again. Next, the vice principal welcomed us, thanked us for coming, said something about swine flu, and welcomed us again. The PTA chairperson was the next to address the crowd and her speech was remarkable, if you consider saying the same thing that the two people before have just said, almost verbatim, without blinking, an accomplishment. Next, it was the turn of the director of this particular event, the Bazaar chairperson to point out that we should be careful about swine flu, that the weather was good today, and that we were to be thanked for coming. We spent some thirty minutes on everybody giving a speech. In my experience with various events in Japan, it has almost always been the same. Before getting started, there is a round of thanksgiving which, if I`m not mistaken, is mostly to show the power and rank of the participants. After all, no one asked me to say anything, give the view of the volunteer on the street.

 Next, we were divided up and assigned to various booths of the rummage sale. I, for no possible reason, had been assigned to bake cookies but this had been cancelled due to swine flu (it`s not all bad, eh?) Since I didn`t seem to have the expertise necessary to sell fine pottery or handbags or shoes, I was assigned to the "miscellaneous" booth, which amounted to all the junk that didn`t fit in any other category. Our section leader advised us to sell everything because we didn`t want to throw it all away, give unlimited discounts, and the like. Interestingly, unlike other sections, our items were not priced so customers could bargain from the start and would likely get a vastly different price depending on wich salesclerk they happened on to. Beyond that, there were way too many salespeople and not enough items and hardly any good ones. We ended up spending most of the sale, hanging around, discussing the weather and swine flu and waiting for the occasional customer.

 Late in the sale, we began a program of "all you take". For 50 yen (about 50 cents) and later, for 10 yen (you do the math!), the customer got a paper bag that they could fill up with as much as they wanted. Even then, some items like a Jamaican? wall decoration, highly damaged, and some assorted carpet samples and a huge lighter that didn`t work and a few others of similar value did not, for some reason, move. So, when the sale was over, we packed up the picked over junk in boxes and stored it away for next year.

 Putting together, the set up, the actual sale, and the clean up (followed by "Thank you" speeches, of course), it was a very labor intensive event, except for the actual sale when there was little to do. It seemed pretty ridiculous to me and led to me ask myself why a public school was having a rummage sale, anyway.

 The principal was kind enough to tell me the two main purposes. First, it was to introduce the school to the community by bringing them into the building. (Wouldn`t an open house have sufficed and been a hundred times easier? And why do we need to introduce the school to the community anyway? Oh, well.) But the main purpose was to "develop camraderie" among the school parents. (How about a picnic? A softball game? Anything but this?)

 Actually, while if the goal was raising money, it must surely have been an almost complete waste of time, the lack of customers, combined with the excess of voulnteers, plus the hard work of setting up and tearing down the entire sale facility, in a strange way, did bring us all together, if not in a pleasant way. I guess it would have to be called a success. A bizarre bazaar. (Sorry, I tried to resist the temptation but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak, as they say.)