The school year is winding down. This week was final exams for the first and second years and today was graduation for the third years. The high school graduation ceremony in Japan is similar to the Western ceremony, but with a few uniquely Japanese twists.
For all of the formal school ceremonies, like 始業式 (しぎょうしき/opening ceremony), 終業式 (しゅうぎょうしき/closing ceremony) and 卒業式 (そつぎょうしき/graduation), the teachers all wear formal attire. For the women this means nice dresses and for the men business suits with white neckties. The principle wears a long-tail suit jacket that makes him look like he’s going horse riding when he’s finished.
The graduation ceremony begins with the procession of graduating students into the gym. Led by their homeroom teacher, first 一組 (いちくみ/class one) files down the center and once they reach the front, they split into two lines with half of the class sitting in the first row of seats on the right while the other half takes the seats on the left. This is followed by 二組、三組、etc. This year’s 三年生 (さんねんせい/third year) class was a bit smaller, so we only had six homeroom classes (usually it’s seven). Seated behind the soon-to-be graduates are a small contingent of first and second years and behind them are family and friends. Seated to the left of the third years are the teachers, and to the right are members of the PTA, principles of local junior high schools, as well as a few representatives from the board of education.
Next comes the 国歌 (こっか/national anthem), called 君が代 (きみがよ/ “May Your Reign Last Forever”). The singing of the national anthem is somewhat controversial among many teachers in Japan. This is because the song is viewed as a relic of Japan’s wartime past and the song’s lyrics praise the Emperor. Many teachers simply choose to remain seated and silent instead. At my school this doesn’t seem to have any significant repercussions, but many teachers have been punished throughout Japan for refusing to participate.
In American graduation ceremonies, students wear caps and gowns and walk onto stage when their name is called to receive their diploma from the principle. In Japan, the students wear their regular 制服 (せいふく/school uniforms), while their names are called by their homeroom teacher, in Japanese alphabetical order (あ、さ、か、) and they stand up from their seat and say 「はい」. They remain standing until all the names in their class have been called, then they sit and the next homeroom teacher stands and calls the name for the his/her class. The diploma is ceremonially bestowed upon one 代表者 (だいひょうしゃ/representative) from each class. The representative is elected by the class, and they alone go on stage and receive the bundled stack of diplomas for their class from the principle. As they walk to the stage, they stop and turn to the right and bow to the members of the PTA, etc. and then turn to the left and bow to the Vice Principle, the teacher acting as the master of ceremonies and the rest of the teachers, before walking up the stairs to the stage. They then bow to the principle, who reads the diploma for that student, congratulates them and hands them the diplomas. They bow again and the student descends the stairs, stopping once again and bowing to the left and the right before placing the stack of diplomas on a table set up in front of the stage. This is repeated for all the classes.
There is a commencement address of sorts, but rather than a special guest speaker, the speech is delivered by the principle. Other speeches are given by a representative of the first and second years. The last two years that student was the president of the student council. The final speech is from a representative of the graduating class. In America, this would be the student with the highest grade point average, but in Japan the valedictorian is not specially recognized.
The ceremony concludes the way it began, with the students filing out class by class. The teachers line up on both sides of the procession at the end of the gym to say goodbye. By this point about half of the girls’ faces are red and streaked with tears, the sight of which usually induces a few of the teachers to cry as well. The students return to their homerooms and a kind of secondary ceremony takes place in the gym in which members of the PTA formally thank the homeroom teachers and the principle for their service. When this is complete, the homeroom teachers retrieve the diplomas from the table at the front and return to their respective classes one last time to pass out the diplomas and say farewell.
The teachers receive a very special 弁当 (べんとう/box lunch) on special occasions like graduation. The contents aren’t too different from the usual fare, but there is more food and more variety in the special bentos. The major difference is the normal, white rice is replaced with 赤飯 (せきはん), a stickier variety of rice that’s boiled with red azuki beans, and there is always a large, boiled, completely intact shrimp.
Once they have their diplomas, the school day/year is officially over, but many students remain for a while to say goodbye to their friends and teachers and take lots of pictures. Any teacher roaming the halls will be pretty quickly swamped by students asking to pose for pictures. Later in the afternoon the new 卒業生 (そつぎょうせい/graduates) hold a 卒業祭 (そつぎょうさい/graduation party) performing various songs, dances, etc.