In Japan, high school students do not typically graduate in the fall. They graduate in Spring. On March first. That happens to be today. Falling on a Sunday, and being preceded by a rehearsal yesterday, today's graduation marks the 7th consecutive day of my work week. Luckily we will receive compensatory holidays this Monday and Tuesday.
ALTs and visitting Americans often comment on the very formal seriousness of Japanese High School graduation, so I was prepared to behold a real spectacle. But truth be told, I don't feel that my graduation from high school in America was much less serious or formal than this one. The interesting point is that they are serious in different ways and the culture of formality is quite different in Japan and America.
The major players
-School principal, who is decked out in a tux with tails for today's events
-Vice Principal, my boss
Night School Vice Principal
-All the teachers, looking their finest, wearing nice suits or kimonos, organized in folding chairs along the side of the gymnasium.
-All the students (wearing their regular uniforms, no caps and gowns). Students are partitioned by year--seniors in the front, freshmen in the back--and homeroom. They are then further separated into clusters of boys and girls.
-All the parents, seated behind the students
-The Brass Band, set up in a make-shift band pit in the back corner of the gmnasium.
-The Chorus Club, situated in the upper balcony in the back of the room
-The two teachers who do photography and video, traversing the catwalks, capturing everything from above.
Before the service began, I was in charge of working with my supervisor at the welcome desk in the front of the school. We greeted VIPs entered the school with cheerful "Ohayou Gozaimasu"s and signed them in, giving them a welcome packet and a ribbon to wear, a pink and white runner up-looking ribbon for regular Alumni, and a huge red "GRAND PRIZE" looking ribbon for extremely important visitors and guests of the principal. After everyone arrived, we entered the gymnasium.
The ceremonies began as the senior (third year) students marched into the hall accompanied by the brass band playing triumphant music, though not Auld Lang Syne, which is typically reserved in Japan for the ending of important projects and/or ushering customers out of businesses around closing time. As the students filed in, led by their homeroom teachers, we had to clap continually for 10 minutes until every student was seated.
After they were assembled as described above, without missing a beat, the Chorus club immediately began singing "Hallelujah" from the balcony. None of the parents tried to turn around in their seat or look at the singing students above and behind them, they just looked forward blankly at the principal who stood motionless, waiting at a podium on the stage. Upon finishing with a harmonizing "Amen," the Chorus Club students filed out of the gym promptly and quietly without applause from the audience. This was eerie.
After some too-long opening remarks from the principal, each student's name was called by their homeroom teacher from a podium beside the stage. One by one, the students of each class stood up from their seats, saying (preferably yelling) "Hai!" (Yes!). Some students roared it out, while others barely made a peep. All the boys first, then the girls for each class. After the entire homeroom was standing, they were instructed to sit down together, and the next homeroom teacher approached the podium, while the "next at bat" teacher got up from his/her seat and stood off to the side.
Then, certain students were honored for achievements or perfect attendance. One at a time they were called up the the stage by the Discipline teacher from the side podium. One by one they ascended to the stage, first bowing to the giant framed Japanese flag, then to the principal. One of my favorite co-English teachers, clad in ornate kimono and white gloves that were reminescent of Bugs Bunny, handed the certificates from an ornate carrying tray to the principal, who then handed them to the students and congratulated them. They bowed to each other once more, and the student left the stage.
That was followed by a series of long-winded speeches that I mostly didn't understand by the principal, special guests, and important alumni. Before and after each speech, the "discipline" teacher instructed the audience in unison to rise, stand at attention, bow, and then sit down again. We sang the national anthem and school song at certain points, as well.
Next came a series of concluding speeches from student representatives. First up was one of my favorite students, a second year and the former president of student council. I believe his speech was on behalf of the underclassmen to the graduating class. Things got more emotional when the representatives of the graduating classes gave their speeches. First a boy representing the regular day school gave his speech, and about halfway through his thank-you's to mom, dad and teachers, he began to creak and sniffle. Next was a girl represented the night school. It took her a good minute or two to pull herself together and start speaking, and she cried throughout the whole speech. I didn't understand much of what she said, but then all the parents and everyone around me started weeping. It was a slow sniffle at first, that moved through the crowd uniformily. Then people, seemingly as a coordinated, cohesive whole, began taking out their little towels and wiping their eyes. It all looked almost rehearsed. Apparently this happens at all graduations, as my Vice Principal warned me. It HAS to happen.(1)
After that was a speech from one representative parent, which didn't move everyone quite as much as the night school student, and then the brass band started up again and we clapped for another solid 5 or 10 minutes as the graduating class filed out in a line.
Once back in the school, the third year students had one last homeroom class, in which they presumably said final goodbyes to these teachers who have followed them throughout the three years. Now all the students are running around the school with their friends and families, getting yearbooks signed, yelling, giving flowers to special teachers, and generally being very excited.
All in all, it was new cultural experience, but not altogether different from the way things go down in America. We also wear nice suits and get very excited and organized over high school graduation. There may be fewer speeches, and there may be no discipline teacher barking "stand! attention! bow! sit!" but i believe that these are cultural transpositions of a similar degree of formality.
I have no schedule for the rest of the day 2 more hours, and then the teachers will have an enkai (office party) to celebrate.
(1)As an interesting aside, most Japanese people always seem to have a tiny towel on hand. Taking a page from Hitch-hiker's guide, maybe. They are commonly exchanged as "thank-you-for-your-gift" gifts.