The first Thursday of March was the graduation ceremony for the third year students at my school (The school year here starts in April and ends in March, with finals being held a few days before the ceremony. Strangely, school itself continues for a couple more weeks, though grades are already due, meaning students and teachers keep to coming classes even though we really can't introduce any new material).
Though the various formal ceremonies in the Japanese school system that I am required to attend are invariably tedious, they do offer me opportunities to see the core of the school experience here. High school graduation being the most important ceremony commemorating the most important event of that school experience, the ceremony is a crystallization of the motive and method of that schooling. I'll give you a summary of aspects of the ceremony, then I'll attempt a bit of interpretation for each.
The graduation is held in the gym. The front chairs are arrayed for graduating students; behind the students is a gallery for parents; behind that is one for current second years. The parent gallery is filled - with the exception of perhaps four members, to be generous - exclusively with mothers. To the sides of the stage are two sections: the one on the right of the stage from the audience's perspective is for teachers, with members further divided into camps of senior administrators, third year teachers, and remaining teachers. There is also a microphone set up for announcements behind a small podium, with one teacher who serves as Master of Ceremonies sitting at a folding chair behind it. On the left of the stage are visiting VIP's; PTA Presidents, Superintendents, retired teachers or administrators. Behind all the audience, in the second-floor rafters, is the school band.
In the center of the stage is a podium, behind which are the national and prefectural flags, to the right of which is the school emblem. Slightly off to the right and above the stage is a plaque that gives the order of events for the assembly.
1. Opening address
2. Singing of the National Anthem
3. Awarding of Diplomas
4. Address from the principal
5. Address from visiting VIP
6. Farewell address
7. Sending off address
8. Singing of the school song
9. Closing address
The most glaring difference to me was of course the absence of fathers at the ceremony. I remarked on this to another teacher, and she informed me that each student is allotted only one seat for a visitor, explaining that the gym wasn’t large enough to hold more than that. This sounded reasonable, except that the gym apparently was large enough to accommodate the entire class of second-year students. So, apparently it’s more important that the second-year students attend the ceremony than the parents of the students actually graduating.
Along with other teachers who have put off entering until the last possible second, I enter the gym and take a seat near the front in order to easily take pictures. Teachers chat in muffled tones. Everyone is wearing a suit, even the P.E. teachers. (As an aside, a P.E. teacher in a suit is like a 10 year old in a suit: uncomfortable and adorable.)
Muted, indistinct classical music is piped in through the sound system as the third years enter the gym, walking in lines down a pathway of sorts, and sit down in rows, arranged by homeroom class. They are wearing the same school uniforms they wear every day, except with small red flowers - I'd guess carnations, but then again the only flowers I can identify for certain are roses and perhaps sunflowers - in the right front pocket of their jackets. They look bored, and the ceremony hasn't even properly begun.
The principal enters the gym, wearing a special jacket with long tails only used for the entrance and graduation ceremonies. He walks down the pathway to his seat at the aforementioned administrator’s area, sitting to the right of the two vice-principals. After he sits down, the MC stands up, walks to the podium at the side of the stage, and announces that the graduation ceremony will now commence. He then barks out, "kiritsu!"
-Now, this is a common part of all the ceremonies at school, these orders. It was something that jumped out at me the first time I attended a function, but now it seems entirely natural. The audience is told when to stand, when to sit, and when to bow through tersely worded yelps from the MC of kiritsu, rei, and chakuseki: "stand," "bow," and "sit," respectively. It's rather strange taking orders from another person like this at first - rather martial, really - but ultimately necessary to make sure everyone is on the same page as far as ceremony goes. Though it might seem like this would be rather obvious - stand for the national anthem, sit for speeches, clap at the end, etc. - as will become clear, the process here is so involved it would be chaos otherwise-
and we all stand. "Now, the singing of the national anthem," he announces. The band in the rafters behind us starts in on the mournful dirge of the song, and the teachers and students begin to sing. (I'm going to save my discussion of the anthem itself for another time, but suffice to say, it's both moving and troubling at the same time to experience) At the end of the song - which is mercifully short, as anthems go -
and we sit.
Then, the MC announces it's time for the awarding of diplomas, and the principal heads up onto the stage, bowing at the audience, then at the flag, taking his position behind the central podium. Now proceeds the most tedious section of the ceremony - the reading of the names of each student. The home room teacher of each class proceeds to the podium at the side of the stage and reads the name of each student in sequence. Nobody walks up to the stage; after his or her name is read, the student stands, yells, "Hai!" bows, and remains standing until all of his or her classmates have had their turn. Then that homeroom sits, and the next homeroom teacher approaches and it starts over again. 40 or so students to a class, 10 classes = lots of "Hai!" and bowing.
I try to amuse myself by thinking about the insane amount of overlap in names that occurs in a country without any sort of immigration. It's like having everyone in a graduating class be named Smith or Jones. There's remarkably little innovation as far as first names go either, because people seem to put all their ingenuity into thinking of different Chinese characters to use to write the first names of their kids rather than thinking of an original name. That topic only works for a bit as a diversion, so I start studying the individual bows of students. You can tell a lot about someone by how they bow: how deep, how long they hold the bow, what they do with their hands - all these things can reveal to an observer things about your personality and upbringing. Or at least, I imagine they reveal such things to me. This kills time.
It also keeps me awake. Many of the other teachers make it through this section by sneaking in a nap. Many of the students do as well, actually. Nestled down in their seats, they jump up as their names are called, managing to get out a muffled "Hai!"
Finally, all the names have been called, so the principal walks off the stage, bowing again, and takes his seat down at the side of the stage. Then, 10 seconds later, he stands right back up, walks back onto the stage, bows again, and takes the exact same position behind the podium. This is the part in the ceremony where I - without fail - laugh aloud and am scolded by whoever I happen to be sitting next to. Because this is the part where the observance of protocol just crosses the line into insanity.
The principal, now back up on the stage and, presumably, rested from his 10 second sojourn, begins to give a speech. This is amusing to me because he's just been transferred to this school in the last year and so is barely known by any of the students. Several, actually, had confessed to me that they don't even know his name. His speech is innocuous enough and passes without incident or interest from the students assembled.
But his speech is outdone in the capacity for arousing disintrest by the VIP speaker brought out next, as the district superintendent comes up on stage to give a rambling 10 minute address. He looks like he's never spoken to a group of students before, and he addresses them in patronizing, simplified terms, like they're graduating primary, not high school. I'm completely mystified by why the guy is even at the ceremony, let alone giving a speech to students. There are actually several other adminstrators present from other junior high and high schools, but they, fortunately, do not also give a speech. Like the principal before him, the superintendent mostly talks about how the students will and should never lose their identification with their school. He sweats a lot, but makes it through, eventually. Most of the students, however, did not make it through the first minute (They're asleep).
The principal stands up once more and again takes his place behind the podium onstage, and the MC announces now it's time for the Farewell Address from a representative of the student body. A girl stands up and walks up on stage to stand facing the principal across the podium. This is what you can see in that picture at the top of the page.
If you look at that picture, you'd probably suspect this was of the girl greeting the principal, or perhaps receiving something on behalf of the class from the principal. But this is in fact a picture taken midway through her speech.
Because, the girl giving the speech about her experience at high school is not giving the speech to her assembled classmates, but directly to the principal at the front of the stage. She talks about the good times and the bad she has had at school, her formative experiences and the times she'll never forget. Near the end, she breaks into tears several times and has to pause to regain her composure enough to go on. Students in the audience, and teachers as well, are similarly shook up by the speech, and the sounds of stifled weeping can be heard all over the gym. Never once during this entire speech does she turn around to face the crowd; the speech is directed solely at the impassive face of the principal. Never once do I see a betrayal of emotion on his face through my zoom lens. The girl goes back to her seat, and
as we bow at the Principal again, before he makes his way off the stage, and
we sit down too.
The sending off is a very quick speech by the
and an intro into the singing of the school song.
The band starts up on the song, which all the students and teachers know - except for me. I suppose I could learn the lyrics, but it's more fun to just go through it making noises that sound vaguely like the verses, waiting for the end where they just sing, "Hamamatsu Minami Koukou," (the name of the school) at which point I can join in heartily. Sometimes I whistle. The school song is longer than the national anthem, incidentally.
The song done, the Vice Principal stands up and walks over to the side podium to announce the end of the graduation ceremony. With one more...
...the ceremony is finished. The piped-in music begins anew and teachers stand by the door as the students file out in rows. I start trying to make a mental image of the ceremony to write about later.
So, this was an extremely long, perhaps tedious description of the event. But that's not to say just because the recounting of so many details was tedious to read that the details are of no importance:
First, just walking into the gym, you can see how everything has its place. Everyone knows where they are to be. And, with the giant sign announcing the order of ceremonies, everyone knows exactly what they will do. Obviously, a current running throughout is the intense attention to detail and procedure. This is most ridiculous in the way the principal dances from stage to the table off-stage between portions of the ceremony, of course, but though I laugh while watching, it makes perfect sense here. Things happen according to certain rules in certain ways and at certain times. Everyone knows this, so it all runs like one well-oiled machine. From the outside - to me - it may seem amusing, silly, or even a bit fascist, but the school is not built to produce people like me to live in the US; it's for Japanese kids to learn to navigate Japanese society.
In Japan, knowing your place is vital, as an awareness of relative status is necessary to even properly talk to another person; different verb conjugations and even verbs have to be used to those above or below oneself. There are rules for behavior in most any situation to follow, and social consequences for not following these rules. Once kids graduate school, they enter adult society, and they have to be ready for their new roles in the workplace. That means learning the right way to navigate the social landscape of the group as much as it does any actual job-skills (Interestingly enough, I've heard of Japanese companies making hiring decisions purely based on a candidate's grasp of honorific language, so in some cases this social adeptness might actually be held above actual work-related ability)
The most shocking part of the ceremony for me was watching the girl give the commencement speech facing the principal, rather than her peers and parents. The symbolism was just amazing. In the US, the girl would speak to her classmates. She would share and celebrate their time and accomplishments at school. But here, the girl was speaking to the principal, the school made manifest. By turning away from her classmates, she was showing that this ceremony was not about their lives and futures, but about their obligation to the school.
At the very end of their schooling, the graduate is produced, not as a supposed invididual who has accomplished much and is on the way to even greater things, but - just as the speeches of the principal and superintendent made clear - as someone who owes a debt to the school and though going on to another, larger group, must never forget their place here. The students are there to be reminded of their place in the line of those before and to come. The ceremony is not about the accomplishments of the students, because it's not really about the students at all; it's about the school.
And that's really it. The ceremony is not about the students, because the schooling is not about the individuals. The schooling is not about producing individuals because the goal is to create members of a group that will cohere into one. The ceremony is a celebration of the group, because that's what the society celebrates.
The thing is, watching one of these graduations, though the school and its ceremony seem to exalt in the group, the students themselves seem ambivalent if not apathetic. And this reveals some problems for this generation in Japan. Schools were set up to create factory workers to compete in a post-WWII market that no longer exists. Loyalty to a group - typically a company - in adult life was predicated on a promise of job security that is no longer being made. Kids see this, and the divide between what society promises and what it can deliver them, what the system is there to provide and what they actually want, seems to be growing. This graduation should be a stirring moment for them as a symbol of what's to come.
But most of them couldn't stay awake.