Graduation day in Japan
Hugh McCafferty finds himself choked up at the graduation ceremony for the class of 2012 in the Japanese high school where he teaches English.
It’s 8am and my co-workers and I have gathered for an especially early morning meeting. March is graduation season in Japan and today our senior students will mark the end of their high school careers. The vice principal goes through the ceremony schedule, reminds individual teachers of their assigned tasks and wraps up with an ominous warning: Be sure to use the toilet before the ceremony begins. Because it’s going to be a long one.
Soon after the meeting is over, a student wanders into the staff room, announces himself and sheepishly approaches his class tutor. She has been expecting the boy and the stick she wields menacingly in her hand suggests this encounter may get unpleasant. Wasting no time, she goes to work with the stick. Mercifully, the implement in question is, in fact, an eyebrow pencil. Nearby teachers share a giggle as she reproaches her wayward student and fills in the conspicuous bald spots above his right eye in time for the ceremony.
As 10 am approaches, staff members and parents make their way to the gym and start to take their seats. Although spring is on the horizon, there’s still quite a chill in the air and most guests keep their coats on. The assembled junior students, unfortunately, don’t have that option and huddle as close as their fold-out seats allow.
At 10 on the dot, the MC announces the commencement of the ceremony. The brass band strikes up and, one by one, the graduating students enter the gym. Given the spotty reputation school brass bands have, it comes as a great relief that this particular group are regional champions. The percussion trips rhythmically, the clarinets chime and the horns soar as the class of 2012 march in and take their seats in perfect synchrony.
Once the music comes to a triumphant close, the principal addresses the crowd with some opening remarks. This is followed by the obligatory singing of the national anthem and then the MC reads out each of the 280-or-so graduates’ names.
In the same way that the marriage of formal events and tediously lengthy roll-calls is a seemingly cross-cultural phenomenon, so too is the tendency of such lists to put people to sleep. We haven’t even reached the 100-mark by the time I hear gentle snoring from the teacher to my left.
In Japan, however, such ceremonies have an in-built mechanism that, intentionally or not, serves to prevent people from nodding off for too long. Whenever a speaker, particularly one worthy of respect, takes to the stage, or leaves it, the MC barks out three militaristic commands: Ki o tsuke! Rei! Chakuseki! (Attention! Bow! Sit down!) Those assembled duly oblige with the speed and efficiency of an arcade mole that’s about to get whacked.
Unfortunately for would-be snoozers, there tends to be a lot of speakers at graduation ceremonies and this bowing process usually takes place at least a dozen times in total. As the role-call comes to an end and the principal makes his way to the podium for the second time, I wonder if my neighbour will get caught out. I needn’t have been concerned, though; a seasoned pro, his eyes open wide as the first command thunders across the PA and he pulls off the motion with great poise and grace. Upon returning to his seat, he immediately closes his eyes again.
After the principal has spoken for the second time, a member of the governing council gives a speech. He is followed by the chairman of the PTA who, in turn, is followed by another speaker (at this point, I’ve lost count and can’t even guess what his position might be). Eventually, the time comes for a student to take centre stage.
With his shaved head and chunky build (a member of the baseball team I’d wager), the student council leader looks ready to bellow out an inspirational address. Less than a few sentences in, though, his voice cracks, and the solemn ceremony is breached by the first trickle of emotion – which, before the morning is out, will become a torrent. The young man admirably keeps his composure and successfully forces the rest of his speech out through alternating sobs and sniffs, eyes trained, at all times, on the notes in his shaking hands.
After numerous more speeches and presentations (and lots more bowing), the ceremony comes to an end. The students will now return to their classrooms, for a final gathering and then they will be free to leave school forever. The brass band launches into a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne, at which point the floodgates truly open. Proud mothers and camera-wielding fathers dab at their eyes as their sons and daughters leave the gym, one-by-one, for the last time. Teachers and younger students watch the procession, some struggling to keep back the tears, others in full flow.
As I watch the students pass by, I unexpectedly start to choke up a little myself. Unfamiliar new lives await these graduates beyond the school gates. In five years, they may be architects, academics, salarymen or shoe shop sales assistants. Regardless of what the future holds, though, they have achieved something quite considerable today. They’ve made it through 12 years of state education: 12 years of homework, tests, uniform checks, canteen food, late nights and early starts. For any student, in any country, that deserves all the suffering of cold gyms, long speeches and endless bowing we can afford them.
Hugh blogs at afewhundredwords.com.