Thursday, March 10, 2011

Junior High School Graduation in Japan: Lots of Bows, Tears, and Formalities

Wednesday was the graduation ceremony for the JHS 3rd Graders. I was lucky enough to get invited to a ceremony (albeit the day before, but still). I was scheduled to work at the Board of Education on Wednesday, which I did. But I had the extra pleasure of attending the graduation ceremony at the “tougher” JHS (definitely one of my favorites though). It was quite a sight, all the students dressed in their formal uniforms. It will be difficult to explain all of the cultural differences that I realized (it was a really good “ah, ha” moment), but I’ll do my best.

Where to start? Attendees. This ceremony was attended by all of the first and second graders (of course), all of the teachers/staff members, certain important town individuals (PTA people, Board of Education people, a fill-in for the Mayor, police, etc), and finally, the parents of the graduates. When I say parents, I really only mean the mothers. Here is where cultural difference #1 struck me. In America, graduation ceremonies are a big deal, attended by all family members. In Japan, I only saw 4 fathers, and the rest (65 or so) mothers. Since graduation was held at 9am, most men were working.

Attire: Let’s just say everybody looked their best! I was instructed to wear a black suit (black jacket and either black pants or a skirt). I wore a white button up shirt underneath and next time, I will wear a black shirt (since everyone else was wearing a black shirt). I snuck my coral sweater under my jacket because it was about 55 degrees in the gym. As for shoes, this was the best part, I wore my black Nikes (ha). Other female teachers wore about the same, most had on all black. The male teachers had on black suits but all had white (or some color of white) ties on. There was not one black tie. Which leads me to cultural difference #2. In Japan, black ties are only for funerals. So, most men had on white or cream ties. I only saw 3 or 4 color ties. The mothers were dressed the same. Most in all black, and since it was cold outside and inside, many people brought blankets to put on their lap. Also, when you go into a school or gym, you must change shoes. Most people brought their own slippers to the ceremony (they honestly reminded me of those pink, fuzzy slippers you would only ever wear in your house and you’d never be caught dead in them outside of your house…).

The Ceremony: Everyone except the third graders were seated. Some music plays and they SLOWLY march in. When I say slowly, I mean painfully slowly. The kids looked miserable. Once all students were in front of their seats, the Homeroom Teacher bowed to them and they sat down. The ceremony was opened by the Vice Principal. Immediately afterwards, the principal and another teacher started handing out diplomas. No opening welcome speech, just straight into the diplomas. It was a very strict process. Bow, take the diploma with your left hand, then your right hand, raise it to eye level, wait for the other student, they both bow, the diploma-in-hand student puts the diploma under their left arm, they make a 90 degree turn, walk two steps, pause for one second while facing the audience, they do not smile, walk somberly down the stairs, put their diploma in a box, and making 90 degree turns, they return to their seats. There you have it. Which brings me to cultural difference #3. In America, at graduation ceremonies, the graduates smile, or the parents clap for their kids. In Japan, nothing. No clapping, no smiling, nothing. It was kind of depressing. I think I was the only one smiling.

Back to the ceremony. Once they get their diplomas, then the speeches started: a message from the Mayor, some other individual (I didn’t know his position), the PTA President (he made remarks about America and England, and they didn’t sound like good remarks). Then, one student from the second grade (one of my favorite students) came up and delivered a 10 minute speech to the third graders. Then the class presidents from the third grade got up on stage and delivered a speech. They thanked their classmates and teachers. This is when the majority of the tears started for the teachers (not me, I didn’t quite follow everything they were saying). After their speech, the second and first graders sang two songs for the third graders. Then finally, the third graders sang for the entire audience. This was the only point where heavy clapping ensued. After the song, the third graders proceeded out of the gym, again very slowly. And that was that. Which brings me to cultural difference #4. In America, you have an opening and closing address. In Japan, they literally say, “the graduation ceremony has begun” and “the graduation ceremony has concluded”.

The First Student Receiving His Diploma

That was my experience at JHS graduation. Next week is the ES graduation, and I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t been invited to a school yet, but there are 2 schools I’d really like to go to (the largest ES or the smallest).

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