卒業式

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.

二月中旬アップデート

This week was Valentine’s Day. As you may or may not know, Valentine’s Day is done a little bit differently here in Japan. Back home, boys and girls give each other cards, flowers, chocolate, etc., but here, Valentine’s is the day that girls give chocolate to the guy(s) they’re interested in. If a guy wishes to reciprocate, he can do so one month later on White Day. I received chocolate from some of my students as well as my fellow English teachers, so I was pretty happy. Girls give two types of chocolate on Valentine’s day, and I got both kinds. While the set my teachers gave me was purchased at a department store, my students gave me chocolate they made themselves at home, and it was surprisingly good! Female office workers also tend to give their male bosses chocolate on Valentine’s Day – whether they like them or not – out of a feeling of obligation. Hence this is know is 義理チョコ(ぎりちょこ), or obligation chocolate.

The weather has been bizarre of late. In my three years living in Osaka, I’ve never seen it snow. But over the past week, it has snowed many times. It’s the same almost every day. It’s very sunny in the morning, and then shortly before noon, a violent flurry of snowflakes falls down for an hour or so, then the sun comes back out.

It’s the middle of winter now, and the temperatures span from about -2°C to 5°C every day. I’ve always preferred summer to winter because I hate being cold, but Japanese winter is particularly unbearable for me. The problem is that buildings are designed to be cool in summer, but not warm in winter; there’s no insulation. This is fine in summer because you can open up all your doors and windows and you usually get enough of a cross breeze to cool things down. But in winter, the heat tends to bleed out of the room pretty quickly. Also, when you factor in the lack of central heating, it makes things even worse. In my English office, for example, we have a gas stove that sits in the middle of the room to provide warmth (with a kettle full of water on top to add some humidity to the air). For the most part, when I’m in the office or in a classroom, it’s warm. But when I step out into the hallway, it’s like I’m walking outside. I can instantly see my breath! Part of the problem lies in the lack of insulation, but another part of it is that teachers and students alike seem to see no reason for closing doors to the outside. What little heat we have simply flies out of the building. Surely they don’t live this way at home. But at school, they think nothing of closing doors behind them. I’ve made it my personal mission to walk around after the bell has rung when I don’t have class and close all the open doors (and the occasional window!). I can’t wait for spring!

Japanese politics

Last week there was a gubernatorial election here in Osaka. There were three major candidates: Toru Hashimoto, backed by the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (自民党/じみんとう) and its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party (公明党/こうめいとう); Sadatoshi Kumagai, backed by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (民主党/みんしゅとう); and Shoji Umeda of the Japan Communist Party (共産党/きょうさんとう).

The winner by a landslide was Hashimoto, a lawyer better known for his celebrity status as a TV commentator than his legal practice. At 38, he is young, handsome and famous and he easily won the support of young and women voters. He has no prior political experience.

Japanese politics differ from what I’m used to in America. First and foremost, while often a favorite topic in casual conversation in the English-speaking world, politics borders on the taboo in Japan. It’s not so much the topic itself, but the inherently controversial nature of the subject that leads most Japanese to refrain from discussing politics. Stating strong opinions and doing anything that might disrupt the harmony of the group is frowned upon and debating politics tends to lead to both. Every time I’ve asked my Japanese friends questions of a political nature, I’ve usually received a short, polite response, often summarily followed by a change of topic.

In keeping with this don’t-rock-the-boat attitude, campaigns are accordingly free of discord. Whereas candidates in America, for example, hold rallies where they deliver policy speeches, pay for television commercials to advertise their stances, and engage in adversarial debates, Japanese candidates rarely directly express themselves. Instead, they put up posters which feature their picture, name and party affiliation. Speeches contain little or no policy proposals. Most interestingly of all, they ride around neighborhoods or circle train stations in vans, often accompanied by young, beautiful women, who join the candidate in waving to bystanders. All the while, a loudspeaker on top of the van repeatedly announces the candidate’s name and politely requests the support of all in auditory range. These vans usually start up around 8am on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and they are extremely loud. On the weekdays, candidates are usually found standing in entranceways to major stations, wearing white gloves and beauty-pageant style sashes that display their names. They wave to commuters while speaking (or having someone speak for them) through a megaphone. Most people, in a hurry to get to school or work, simply ignore them. Some candidates running for higher offices do attract large crowds eager to meet them. It is only in this setting that you will actually see Japanese shaking hands.