Photo: Steph & Adam
March 3rd was graduation at my high school here in Japan, so I thought I’d give the run-down of what it’s like, as well as a few tips to prepare for yours if it hasn’t happened yet. If you notice any difference from your own, write in the comments. I’ve only seen graduation at one school, after all.
Graduation came the day after exams ended, in the middle of the week, with classes for the 1st and 2nd year students continuing the very next day. At my school, it takes place in the gym, and fortunately it was sunny outside, so I only needed to wear 4 layers to stay reasonably warm.
The entire ceremony went just over an hour, from 9:50am – 11:00am, although I was recommended to head down around 9:20 to get a seat in the teachers’ section. The front row of the teacher’s section is reserved for the homeroom teachers of the graduating 3rd year classes. As it happened, I was the first teacher to actually sit down, so I went with my supervisor’s suggestion and grabbed the seat closest to the heater, and other teachers quickly sat down near me. The 2nd year students were already seated (1st year students don’t attend), and most of the parents had already found their seats.
At 9:50 the school band started to play and the 3rd year students began filing into the gym, two by two, led by their homeroom teacher, standing before their seats, and sitting as a class when told. They spent the day prior to graduation practicing the whole ceremony. They wear their school uniform that they wear everyday.
At 10:00 the ceremony began with everyone standing to sing the Japanese national anthem. Then, we sat down and were immediately asked to stand to sing the school song, which was displayed in hiragana so I could follow along.
With the singing finished (for now), we sat down, and each 3rd year student was called by name by their homeroom teacher. As each name is called, the student stands up and says “hai!”. Interestingly, the less-motivated students said nothing at all, and the more motivated students spoke loudly. Amazing what you can glean about a student just from how they say the word “hai”.
When all students’ names had been called, one student from the graduating class approached the principal at the podium and formally received a diploma on behalf of all of the students, by raising it above his head, bowing, and retreating backwards off of the stage. There is a lot of formal footwork by anyone who approaches the ceremony, as they have to pay respect to the flag on the stage, the teachers to the left of the stage, and the city officials to the right of the stage. It’s very interesting to watch, considering the in U.S. all I had to worry about was making sure I didn’t trip and taking the diploma in the correct hand — oh, and switching the tassel on my mortar board!
After the diploma is received, speeches follow. This takes up the majority of the time, and might be interesting if you can understand Japanese. If not, consider it a good chance to try to understand Japanese intonation and pick out any katakana words. The principal and mayor both gave speeches, as did a 2nd year student to his upperclassman, and a 3rd year student to his fellow classmates. Each person giving a speech has it written on a special, long piece of paper, that is folded in an accordion, so they can read the speech without any page flipping. Afterwards, it’s put into a special envelope and placed on the podium.
Finally, the ceremony nears completion when everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne” (in Japanese). The 3rd year homeroom teachers tell their students to stand, and they file out. In previous years the students used to shout something at their teachers or make some kind of joke, but this year it was decided that it wasn’t formal enough for a ceremony so that (along with party poppers, a previous tradition) has fallen to the wayside.
After graduation, the students go back to their homeroom to receive their yearbooks and enjoy looking at photos of everyone and taking photos with friends and teachers. The homeroom teachers often receive large bouquets of flowers. It’s a fun time to wander around the halls with your camera and say your final goodbyes to the 3rd year students.
For the visual types among you, here’s a video summarizing graduation ceremonies in Japan — complete with “Auld Lang Syne” at the end.
- Ask your teachers what you should wear. At my school, the men all wear black suits and white ties (subtle patterns on the ties are okay). One teacher wore a nice black dress. Two others wore formal hakama. Often women wear formal kimono (added bonus, because they’re warm). Many female teachers wear suits. I noticed that many women wore more makeup than usual, and many were wearing pearls.
- Wear clothes to keep warm! Our school gym had 5 small space heaters for the entire gym. You can wear a few undershirts to keep your core insulated.
- Use kairo. At drugstores you can find pocket-sized body warmers that work when the chemicals are exposed to air — some even have a sticky side so you can attach them to your shirt under your suit. Don’t feel silly; my teachers all made a big production of sticking the kairo under each others’ suit jackets last year. Or, just shove one in your pocket and be thankful during the speeches.
- Don’t watch the homeroom teachers to know when to stand/sit. If you have a row of homeroom teachers in front of you, keep in mind that sometimes they have to stand when the rest of the teachers don’t, so keep an eye on the teacher next to you instead if you can’t understand Japanese.
- Practice the Japanese anthem and school song to be involved in a group you belong to.
Even if you can’t count to ten in Japanese, you’ll be in-the-know if you can at least recognize some of these words:
sotsugyou (卒業) – graduation
sotsugyoushiki (卒業式) – graduation ceremony
kiritsu (起立) - stand up
rei (礼) - bow (at least that’s what this means in the context of a graduation ceremony)
chakuseki (着席) – sit down
seito (生徒) – students (as in “students, stand up”)
sotsugyousei (卒業生) – graduate, someone who graduated
shokuin (職員) - staff members (as in “staff, stand up” — this includes teachers)