My high school’s graduation ceremony was on March 1st. The Japanese school year begins in April, but graduation happens in the beginning of March, midweek, while first and second year students still have classes. It was a fun cultural experience to attend a Japanese graduation because it was so different than a high school graduation ceremony in America. Plus, I wore my very first kimono! Getting up at 5:30 am to have my hair done and be dressed in my Oshima Tsumugi kimono by the most adorable little obachan in the world was so worth it. Oshima Tsumugi is the traditional silk-woven fabric that is carefully handmade right here on Amami. As an Island ALT, I wouldn`t have wanted to wear any other fabric!
A teacher suggested I bring a change of clothes to school in case I wanted out of the kimono if it was too uncomfortable, but I decided to wear it all day. I’m so glad that I did because I was able to take so many pictures with the third years while wearing the kimono. Plus, I really enjoyed wearing it for a day. :)
Graduation Seating Arrangements
The 215 graduates sat front and center of course. To the right of the stage, there were two rows of chairs for the third year teachers. The first row was reserved for the homeroom teachers, and the second was for sub homeroom teachers. (I almost accidentally sat in the homeroom teacher row before I was instructed not to…) The principal, vice principal, and head of the office sat adjacent to the stage. The section directly behind the third years was for all of the second year students and only four students from each first year class. There was a small section for teachers directly across from the first and second year students. This is where I sat down. Then the back of the room was the family section. Many moms chose to wear kimonos to graduation too. To the left of the stage was a long row of alumni who had graduated 50 years ago (you wouldn’t believe how young they looked for 68) and PTA members. There were more teachers lining the perimeter of the gym, and the school band was on the second floor.
Just before 10 am, the band started to play Pomp and Circumstance and the homeroom teachers (they always wear a special kimono for graduation) lead their third year class into the gym. Instead of a cap and gown, students wear the school uniform they wear every day. Students were seated by homeroom class and not in alphabetical order.
After everyone (except for me) sang Japan`s National Anthem and the School Song, the principal gave a quick speech, and then it was time for the homeroom teachers to announce their graduates` names (complete with live piano accompaniment.) When a student`s name was called, they popped up and shouted “HAI!”I think it was a competition between the boys in each class to see who could shout “hai” the most emphatically. It was actually really entertaining, and the most ridiculous “hais” garnered some laughs.
Once the last student’s name was called in a class, one student walked on stage and formally received the diplomas on behalf of everyone from the principal. The student had to execute a lot of fancy footwork and bows in every direction before returning to their seat. The rest of the class remained standing until the student who received the diplomas told them to sit. It was cool to watch as each homeroom class moved as a collective unit.
It took a half an hour for all of the homeroom teachers to announce their students’ names. Then there was a nonstop hour of really long and difficult-to-follow Japanese speeches. I saw a few students doze off and I could hear a teacher snoring behind me. And at this point, wearing a constricting kimono and sitting up straight in an uncomfortable metal chair with my feet flat on the ground did awful things to my lower back. I ended up sitting very un-Geisha like to make myself a little more comfortable. Oops.
One of my favorite third years gave the second to last speech. Of course I didn’t understand what she was saying, but because I know her well (she was one of my weekly penpals in school), I could sense the passion and emotion in her voice. When she asked the third years to turn around and face the audience at one point, so many of them were in tears. Her speech lasted almost fifteen minutes and I was captivated by her fervor.
And then the end of her speech was in English. “If there is a will, there is a way,” she said. And then I lost it too.
The End of the Ceremony
The ceremony was over just before noon, and then it was time for the third years to exit with their homeroom teachers. The homeroom teacher would ask their class to stand up, and then the students would scream arigatou gozaimashita in unison and bow to their teacher. A couple classes turned to the section of sub-homeroom teachers and school administration and bowed to them as well. Maybe I’m just a sap, but watching the third years publicly thank their teachers for everything was quite moving. In America, hardworking teachers rarely get the respect they deserve, so it was incredible to experience the Japanese teachers receiving endless appreciation from students and their families. In Japan, teachers are highly respected public servants.
I also find it interesting that the concept of homeroom in Japan and America are so different. In Japan, third year homeroom teachers are pretty much responsible for each and every one of their student`s success.
After the ceremony
Homeroom teachers had their final class with students, and families could attend that too. Students received their yearbooks and said their final thank you sand goodbyes to their teacher. Most of the homeroom teachers received giant bouquets of flowers too.
Once the third years were let out of homeroom, school went WILD. All of the first and second year students had been waiting outside for their club activity senpais so they could say goodbye to them as well. There was lots of screaming, chanting, pushing, ball-tossing, picture-taking, and Oendan happening for a good three hours. My school’s rugby team has a tradition where the boys climb onto the roof and throw all of their uniforms to the first and second year rugby players on the ground and they fight over who gets what. All of the teachers and I ran out into the hallway so we could watch the mayhem. Once all of the uniforms had been tossed down…they dumped buckets of cold water!
Okay, so I ended up running out into the hall on more than one occasion. I’ll admit that I barely did any work after graduation. I guess I just can’t focus in a kimono. But I was able to walk around and say my goodbyes to the third year students I worked closely with.
When I left school around 4:30, the students were still outside having fun and doing Oendan. It was really nice to see them have a break from their grueling school schedule and just enjoy each other’s company. I witnessed how much they truly care about each other.
The Day After
I returned to school Wednesday morning, and classes for the first and second years had returned to normal. It was like the chaos of the day before never happened. Except when I walked past the students’ bicycle racks and there were so few bikes. It felt so empty.
But the new first years will arrive in about a month, and I can’t wait to meet them. :)