Japanese Graduations

Lots of prep. I get it. But do we need to be that specific with the times?

Lots of prep. I get it. But do we need to be that specific with the times?


It’s the end of the Japanese school year again.

One More Week

Actually, not even. Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the “end of the term” ceremony. 修了式. Not sure what we’d call that in English, but it’s just a short ceremony to officially end the semester. Did we have that in America? Sometimes I forget. Definitely not in university, anyway.

So, two more days of classes for normal students, including today. But tests are more-or-less over. It’s like the conclusion of a book. Dénouement. We’ll have some character arcs wrapping up, a few unexplained events for the next book to delve into, and a general feeling of calm now that the main events are over.

That is to say, we’re in the downward arc now. But of course, you can’t have a downward arc if you didn’t have a big event before it. Climax. And of course, that climax is the graduation.

Elementary School Graudation

Do we have these? I’m sure some schools do. What I remember was a bunch of younger kids lining the hall and cheering as the graduating class walked down the hallway and out the door. Nothing big. But my memory has betrayed me before.

Japanese Elementary School Graduation is a whole different affair. It’s rehearsed two or three times by the students, in full. It takes about two hours. There are flowers, and a podium, and more flowers. I should have taken a picture. It’s really quite beautiful.

Because it’ll be important later on, I should mention the layout of the gym where the graduation ceremony is held. This is pretty standard in all schools that I’ve seen, with slight variations. There is a stage. Before the stage sit the graduating students. Behind them, the parents and the students, divided into separate sections. These might be reversed. Graduating students, parents, other students. Graduating students, other students, parents. But the graduating students are in the front. Sitting off to the side behind a large table is where the teachers sit. On the opposite side is another large table where the sea of honored guests sit.

Not my graduation, but you can see here where the students are in the front, the parents behind them, and the "honored guests" off to the side.

Not my graduation, but you can see here where the students are in the front, the parents behind them, and the “honored guests” off to the side.

By the time we had the ceremony, the only difference from the practice was the amount of people in the room and the number of tears. And the clothes. There were also some speeches that weren’t there before. Now that I think about it, it was quite different, all things considered.

I know this should be normal by now, but sometimes I step out of my frame-of-mind and realize how much order and ceremony is involved in even the simplest Japanese actions. Not that I’m calling a graduation “simple”, but it could be simpler. Just because something is traditionally thought of as complicated doesn’t mean it couldn’t be simple.

It’s a little backwards too, from how the American graduation proceeds. Not backwards as in “these people and their ideas are backwards and foreign”, but just backwards as in the opposite order. And it can throw someone unfamiliar for a loop.

The graduating students enter from the stage and go sit down in seats at the front. They walk like robots, on lines, arms not bending at the elbow, hands like a rock-scissors-paper paper, eyes straight forward, for whatever reason. Each student walks the same way. The robots are dressed very well though, with one girl-robot in a kimono. Last year, every girl had one, but this year only that student and the homeroom teacher donned the traditional clothing.

After finally sitting down, everyone stands to sing 君が代. It’s the shortest national anthem in the world.

Next, the principal gets called to the stage with the diplomas. The students are then called, and like robots, they walk on lines towards the stage to get their diplomas. They accept the diploma by grabbing the left side with their left hand, then the right side with their right hand, then stepping back with their arms outstretched, and bow. After they get the piece of paper, they walk towards a box and put their diploma in the box. There are no diagonals. Canon is playing in the background. Eleven students. This takes about fifteen minutes.

After it’s over, the principal makes a speech. Then the mayor makes a speech. Then the PTA president. Each one is uninspired by my point of view, but then, I’m only understanding 70%. I’m trying hard not to doze off.

Following the speeches, the MC directs our attention to the honored guests and reads their names off one-by-one. When their name is called, they stand briefly, say “congratulations” to the students and then “congratulations” to the parents. Sometimes the “congratulations” is slightly more formal when directed at the parents. This whole process takes a long time. I question the need for this step, but if we didn’t have it, the ceremony would be pretty short. Maybe that’s why?

Finally, it’s done. And time for the students do to their thang. The graduating students turn their chairs around to face the current students. They give a short speech in Japanese elementary student fashion, with one student saying a sentence, then another, then another. It’s actually pretty good. Then they sing a song. I’m digging it.

When they all sit down, it’s time for the first to fifth grade to all stand up. They’ll give their each-person-says-one-thing speech, followed by a big “thank you”. Then they sing a song. Why couldn’t the PTA president sing a song? These are great.

Following that, the graduating students are emotional. They sing one more song. Best part of the graduation. With that, they leave, ceremoniously.

Then, of course, one more quick speech to close the ceremony.

Later, the students do the same thing we did in America. Line the halls. Cheers and high fives. Then, oppositely, the non-graduating students leave the school. The graduating students remain.

All well and done, the teachers and the graduating students and their families filter into the cafeteria. Finally, some pretense of formality is over. We still have to wait for everyone to “cheers” at the same time. And then, there is a schedule. But compared with the robots from before, it’s a downright party! The food’s good. The slideshow showing the kids growing up is great. They gave all us teachers flowers and a personal message. It was sweet.

I go outside, and it’s raining, and I tell a kid we should play Terraria together sometime, and then I drive home.

Junior High School Graduation

So, it’s basically the same. The only difference is that all the students are wearing uniforms. And there is a greater divide between the male and female students. And there’s no speech from the graduating students to the remaining students, or vice-versa. They also all sing a song together. And the PTA president’s speech was actually good. In retrospect, it’s not very similar, is it? I gotta stop saying that things that are different are similar.

The biggest difference was that I wouldn’t be seeing these kids again next year. So it was actually pretty sad. One of the kids is moving to the big city. I’ll see some of them from time to time, but unlike the elementary school where the students will come to the middle school that I also teach at, I have no connection to their high schools. So, it really is goodbye.

Speaking of real goodbyes, there’s one other “graduation” ceremony…

Coworker Graduation

At the end of every school year, the teachers change. Teachers don’t apply to work at specific schools. Rather, they sign up with the prefecture and the prefecture decides where they go, taking into account a teacher’s preference. So if a teacher wants to work in Murata because their home is near Murata, maybe they’ll be transferred there. They probably will. If a teacher wants to stay at their current school, unless they’ve been there for ten years (or, if it’s their first school, they usually switch after their first three years, on the dot), they get to stay.

For me, this is actually the most painful. Because whether or not the school is a good place to work largely depends on my coworkers. They’re the ones I build the strongest connections to. So it’s difficult to say goodbye.

But it’s also nice, because there is a chance the next person will be even better than the last. Or different, in any case. Additionally, because I live in a teacher’s apartment, that means my immediate neighbors are changing too.

Still, like the junior high school graduation, there’s a lot of folk about to disappear from my life. I’m glad though. Maybe this next step will be closer to their dreams.

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