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Thursday, March 12, 2015



Second years waiting anxiously for the graduates to walk the halls

     Graduation has come and gone. This year was quite special in that I knew all my third years very well. They were an exceptional group of kids - and just to warn you, I'll probably wind up saying that a few more times.
     If pressed, I would say that graduation in Japan is, at the very least, different than that of one from America. I haven't much personal knowledge in regards to what other ceremonies across the globe look like so for simplicity's sake I'll speak to my own experiences.
     As I left for work in the morning I was completely taken back by the amount of snow that had collected on the ground - specifically, any snow at all. It was mid-March! It's not all that uncommon to have a last wind from winter, but this was a freak day of cold and snow. The days before and after had perfect weather indicative of a much desired spring. After scraping my windows clean I drove off.
     The teachers in the office were about halfway dressed. When I say halfway dressed I of course mean that the ladies were all done up while the men still needed to put on ties and jackets. I threw my own jacket in the lockers we have because the accepted fashion here seems to be wearing it only when required. I can get on board with that because it'll help prolong its life, which is my way of legitimizing the fact that I don't want to have to buy another jacket.
     Looking up from my desk I had a brief scan at the day's schedule. We would clean for about twenty minutes, then at 9 o'clock the students would gather once more in the gym for a last minute practice session. Finally, at around 9:40, graduation would commence. Just in this first hour, the differences are notable.
     My high school (and many like it) might have been an exception for the following. Our graduating body was so large that we couldn't use the actual school's field for the ceremony and instead held commencement on the football field of a much larger school. While it is true that most of us work at schools with a marginally low student population I've never heard of a school (in Japan) not having its ceremony anywhere other than its own gym. Conversely, I've never heard a high school in America that did.
     After watching their graduation practice for a little bit I wandered the halls before finally ending up by the reception table, welcoming parents. Alongside four second year girls and two other teachers, we greeted parents and ushered them to the library where they would wait until it was time to enter the gym. To each one we would offer a hearty "おはようございます" and then "おめでとうございます," as they proceeded to find their son or daughter's name on a sign-in sheet.* The parents, by the way, were dressed to the nines. No father walked in without a suit on, and the mothers were dressed as though attending dinner parties. This is a stark contrast to what I remember from my own time, which might be best described as a sea of shorts amongst the faint aroma of coconut tinged sunblock.

The 68th Graduation Ceremony for Akasaki Junior High School
     Eventually I made my way inside and took a seat in the teachers' section. The band (minus the graduates) were seated on the side, close to the entrance. The undergraduates formed two rows in the very back. In front of them were the parents. As viewable in the above picture, the graduates sat close to the stage. For the time being, the chairs were empty because much like one would expect there was a processional march that introduced them.
     Back home, we wore a cap a gown, naturally. Underneath that, most graduates wore dress clothes. The boys wore suits and the girls wore dresses or skirts. The students here wear their uniforms everyday - which would be the case for me had I gone to a private school - and apart from a small adornment that is similar in appearance to a corsage, that is exactly how they graduated. Upon inquiring as to the name of said decorative element I was informed that they called it, "Ribbon". So there you go.
     They came out in two lines, which separated the A and B group. There was a path down the middle in which they walked together (two at a time) then subsequently divided upon reaching their seats. A very noteworthy point to make during the march is that it was only one of two times when people clapped. Nobody cheered ever, or otherwise made noise, but they clapped exactly twice: once when the students walked in, and again as they walked out.
     The ceremony itself was about an hour or so, and it involved a lot of standing up for people as they walked center stage, bowing, sitting, rinse, repeat. The principal offered some words (stand, bow, sit, etc.) then the head of our Board of Education, followed by the head of the PTA. After all that was over they started handing out certificates.
     Apparently handing out each certificate to every student is a rare thing to see. Thanks to the small size of our graduating class it was a possible but according to my principal, that's not always the case. In the event that the class size is too big, a representative would accept the certificates on behalf of the graduates. I thought that was a little bit sad. Everyone's name gets read out at ours, no matter how big of a class. I think we had about 1000 students at my high school that were graduating and we burned in the sun for all the time it took to read out each one.
     In any case, it's quite a thing to see. Everyone treats it with the utmost level of seriousness, which is fine, perhaps. The students didn't smile at all when they were on stage however, which was kind of sad to see. Each one proceeded up the stage, stood at the far end and faced the audience. From there they moved to the center and bowed in front of the principal. A helping teaching handed certificates to him, and he in turn handed them to the students. The receiving student stayed in a bowing position after receiving it, slid to the right, maintained that pose, and did not rise until the person following them received theirs. After that they straightened up and walked off stage.
     Once certificates were all distributed they sang. First, the third years sang two songs, with members of their class conducting and playing the piano accompaniment. The last song was sung between the undergraduates and the third years.

That was pretty much the ceremony. Plus or minus a few rounds of standing up, bowing, and sitting down.

     After the ceremony there was a kind of lull. The third years went back up to their classroom and had a little bit of lunch. Everyone brought a bento that day because there was no actual school lunch. Not much happened from this time until noon when we gathered around for the last part of graduation known as 見送り.**
     For this, all of the students gathered outside their respective classrooms, each holding flowers or personal gifts that they planned to give the recent graduates. I waited on the second floor, which is where the title picture of this post was taken. Once the time hit, the third years descended down each floor and walked the length of the hallway, passing by their former classmates. This is when the undergrads would hand out the flowers or any thing they personally wanted to give to their friends. It's a pretty emotional time, lots of students nearly cried, just as many actually did.
     I was taking pictures the whole time, being very careful to scout out a good location where I could get some nice shots. There was a moment in which a couple of my students realized I was standing there and ran up to me, mostly for pictures, but also to say goodbye. I congratulated them, adding that they were the best kids, and I had the most fun with them. One of the two couldn't understand, the other one did a little. I explained in Japanese and that's when tears happened. We hugged it out, because I don't care about the rules of not hugging here. You hug people when they cry. That's all I'll say on that front.
     I asked another teacher to help hand out cards with my contact information on it, including a QR code for the extremely popular messaging app called, "LINE" here in Japan. It's available all over the world too now, but it originated here. I told the students to write me, so I could send them their pictures. I don't mean to get ahead of my story but well over twenty-five of them have talked to me and I've sent pictures to all of them.
     After all the students walked the halls, I quickly ran downstairs and headed straight for the students' entrance to the school. I knew this is where they would end up, and I wanted to get a few more pictures while they were still hanging around. Sure enough, they were hanging back - not everything is different, loitering is a universal quality of the youth - and I eventually found myself in quite a few selfies, which have also been sent to me. I got some great last minute pictures, including probably one of the best pictures I think I've ever taken. One of my girls asked for a 記念, and I felt bad that I had nothing to give to her.*** I'll have a gift ready for the next time we meet, I promise!
     One of the things I tried to do was convince the students that this day didn't have to be a sad one. It should be happy. It should be joyous. Graduation is a cause for celebration. I think many of my students felt that it would potentially mean the end of friendships (including mine) since they'd all likely be going to other high schools in the area. I made sure to dismiss those things as nonsense. It doesn't have to be the end if we don't want it to be. We can still be friends if we choose to be. A memorable moment was when one of my boys said that he was sad because we couldn't meet anymore. I agreed it was a little bit sad, but expressed I was more happy for what they had in store. It only gets better, I told him. He nodded and said, "I will become a man." That was in English by the way.
     Once the dust settled and all the goodbyes were said, I started back for the office. I grabbed a final picture of the few students who were walking home. That really sealed the deal for me. When I had a look at the shot I had just taken, there was a degree of finality to it, despite having spoken against this notion. Back in the office, alone with my thoughts, I sat down at my desk.

What a day.

I'm going to miss you guys. You really were the best.


* おはようございます (Ohayougozaimasu) is a greeting, which means "Good morning."
   おめでとうございます (Omedetougozaimasu) is a way of saying "Congratulations."

** 見送り (Miokuri) is way of saying "send-off."

***記念 (Kinen) is translated literally as a memory, but it's best to think of it as a kind of parting gift or memento, similar to when we ask a person for something to remember them by.


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