March in Japan means the end of the school year and changes on the horizon, and of course along with that comes sotsugyo: graduation. Since I teach at both a kindergarten and Junior High School, I was able to see two graduations, and all the pomp and circumstance (minus the actual song) that comes along with it.
Graduation in Japan is a very formal event. This was true for both kindergarten and junior high. While the students wear their usual uniforms, parents and teachers come in formal attire. This formal attire includes black suits (with white ties for men, pearls for the women), kimonos for some of the mothers, and coat tails for the principal. Corsages are worn by all the teachers, though most of them are fake they are still quite elaborate and impressive. Below I’ve separated out my impressions of the two. While there were definitely some overlapping similarities, the things that stood out definitely differed based on the age group.
What was most impressive to me about the kindergarten graduation was the uniformity, discipline and structure that they were able to orchestrate with a bunch of 5 year olds. Each kindergartener stepped at the right pace, stood in the right spot and in the right way (straight, hands flat by their side), bowed at the right time, and said all the right things. Towards the end of the ceremony, after each student’s name had been called and they each proceeded up to accept their certificates, then filed back to present them to their mothers, all the students went up on the stage and did a very long recitation that was interspersed with song that they also sang together. I couldn’t believe how much they had been able to memorize and recite, in sync. It would be impressive to get any group of children to do so, let alone 5 year olds. Throughout the ceremony, almost like a domino effect, every single woman in the room started to cry. I couldn’t count one mother who I did not see at one point or another dab her eyes with her hand towel, and I quickly realized that most of the female teachers were doing the same. It was both surprising and heartwarming, and nearly got me too.
After the graduation ceremony, there was a small shorter ceremony held to thank the teachers. We all proceeded into the small auditorium and were seated at the front, facing the students and their parents. One by one two or three students came up to present flowers and a gift to each of us. I even got a “thank you” from one of the students who gave me my gifts (instead of “arigato gozaimasu”), to which the parents were very impressed. At this point, half the students were in tears. Some had started during their ceremony, but the numbers climbed rapidly as they said their thanks and goodbye to their teachers. One moment some students would be laughing at another kid for crying and the next moment those same laughing students were in inconsolable tears.
After the teacher ceremony, everyone was herded out to the field of a group picture. And I mean everyone. All the students, all the teachers, all the parents. There’s about 30 students in the kindergarten class so it wasn’t too bad, except that 10 of these students were still unable to stop crying. I couldn’t help but find humor in the fact that this big nice picture of everyone was being taken while some of the kids were quite obviously in some emotion distress.
Overall it was so sad to say goodbye to some of these kids who I have really enjoyed teaching. My time at the kindergarten has been one of my favorite parts of my job and this experience while there are more adorable kids coming in next year, I’ll definitely miss these ones and all the beautiful memories I have with them. They were some of the first people in Japan who didn’t make me feel like such an outsider.
During the Junior High graduation, I felt a lot more dependent on my JTEs to tell me what was happening. But I think that’s also the nature of it- if someone is there you know can help you out in English you’re going to turn to them even if you could (maybe, hopefully) clumsily make your way through without.
I dared to be different and wore a black dress with a black blazer. Ok so it’s not actually different but I generally haven’t worn anything but pants at school due to the added work of ensuring my tattoo is covered. The only drawback to wearing the dress was the freezing cold temperature of the gymnasium. The gym is not heated, not even a little, and it seems to retain cold air like you wouldn’t believe. One of my JTE’s was very thoughtful and brought me a corsage to wear, since I of course don’t own one (and haven’t worn one since prom…). It definitely was something small but made me feel a little more like I knew what I was doing/was supposed to be there.
During the ceremony, all the students’ names were called, but they only stood up, acknowledged their name, and sat back down. There was about 150 of them and no one proceeded up to receive their diploma, although I do believe there was one handed out to one of the class leaders as a symbolic replication. A lot went on during the ceremony, most of which was overwhelming and challenging to follow. I didn’t feel incredibly lost at the time but looking back on it now it seems to be a jumbled mess of Japanese and bowing.
The bowing. I was warned there would be a ton of it and there definitely was. A group of higher ups from the Board of Education and community were in attendance and each wished the class congratulations (omedeto). With each omedeto, the entire group of third years bowed in unison. It was a pretty impressive sight coming from a non-bowing country.
Another striking aspect was the amount of song in the ceremony. The entire auditorium sang the national anthem and school song. The first and second years sang a song for the third years and the third years sang a song as well (I wish I could say what of). A little time in Japan makes it clear why/how karaoke is so popular here!
As the ceremony closed and the third years proceeded out, class by class, the audience engages in clapping the entire time. I don’t know that I’ve ever clapped so much in my life. Following the ceremony, the students head back to their classrooms for a last goodbye, while the rest of the staff and students go back to thaw out from the cold gymnasium. Then, everyone lines up to create a walkway to the school gate for the graduates, their teachers and parents to proceed out of. This is called a “hanamachi” or “flower walk”. Again, more clapping and omedetos.
Finally comes the picture taking. Third years ran around with their smart phones and selfie sticks to capture the moment with friends, family and teachers. I was excited to be in a few and managed to snag a couple pictures myself. One of my students, who had come to me a few months prior asking for help and practice with English conversation and who I ended up helping study for the high school entrance exam, gave me a small gift in thanks which was so heartwarming for me. I truly enjoyed my time spent teaching this class of third years and was very sad to see them go.
We finished the celebrations with a nice obento provided be the school. Teachers then rushed to the locker rooms to change into track suits and out of their formal wear (unbeknownst to me- it wasn’t anything I would have thought to do but smart!) Then a meeting (always a meeting) and then, to my surprise, first and second years came back to school for club activities!! No rest for the weary I suppose.
All in all the events were so telling of Japanese culture, yet still very much youth centered celebrations. I’m so grateful to have been able to experience this side of Japanese culture- to see how Japanese children are raised has given me an insight into this world that I don’t think I could have otherwise seen. I’m excited for the new year, but saddened not to be able to see it through.