Last Saturday, I had to be at school at my usual time in a black suit with black shoes. All the other teachers wore the same thing (except for two third year teachers who wore hakama), and every student showed up to school in their uniforms.
Did I mention this was on a Saturday?
The Saturday of the graduation ceremony! I wrote about all the rehearsal leading up to this in my last post, and after anticipating it all week, I loved seeing everything come together!
When I got to school, the main entrance was draped with flags printed with the school’s name. Tables covered in flowers were set up just inside the entrance for parents to sign in. The third year homeroom teachers went to meet their classes in their usual rooms, and the first and second years went to the gym to practice all the songs we’d be singing one more time.
The entire gym floor had been covered with mats, and the aisle between all the chairs for students and parents was lined with potted flowers. The gym’s stage was decorated with Japan’s flag, Izumo city’s flag, and the school flag. A large bonzai tree sat on the center podium. A few kerosene heaters were working to keep the gym warm. The first and second year students helped to set all of this up and clean the school the day before. Now, they got to see their efforts contributing to this event.
After the third years filed into the gym with the school band playing to welcome them, we got started. We stood to sing Japan’s national anthem, and after some words from the vice principal, students started being called to the stage to receive their diplomas. At all the graduations I grew up with, receiving diplomas was always the last thing to do in the ceremony, so I was surprised that it happened so quickly here. I was also surprised by the silence as the graduating students walked across the stage. Back home, you’re technically not supposed to cheer for students getting their diplomas until the very end, but everyone ignores that rule. That’s why, when the third years started walking across the stage, I really wanted to clap for them, but everyone else in the gym was completely silent, so I didn’t.
To receive their diplomas, a student would step in front of the principal, who holds out the diploma. The student takes the diploma first with one hand, then the other. Then they hold the diploma over their head, bow, and take a step to the side so that the next student can come to the podium. Once you see all the little steps students have to go through just to move around at graduation, you completely understand why rehearsal is so important. The third years had definitely taken practice seriously, because they seemed to know what to do without even thinking too hard. Actually, the formality of graduation reminded me a bit of Japanese tea ceremony. When you perform a tea ceremony, you have to be very aware of how you hold yourself, how you receive or give something, how you move from one thing to another. The same kind of idea seemed to be present in this ceremony.
After all the graduating students had been given their diplomas, the speeches began. The principal, alumni, and an underclassman all gave speeches congratulating the third years. The speech by the underclassman was especially touching. She delivered a speech thanking her upperclassmen for their leadership in club activities and other school activities, and to say how much she would really miss them. This was the point where I heard sniffles from somewhere in the gym. The student on stage seemed to be close to crying, too, but she held herself together.
After this came my favorite part of the whole ceremony. All the students stood up. The third years turned to face the underclassmen sitting behind them, and all the students sang the graduation song to each other. A good luck from the underclassmen to the upperclassmen, and a goodbye from the upperclassmen to the underclassmen.
After the ceremony was over, the third years went back to their homeroom classes to say some final words to their homeroom teacher and classmates, and to receive a small gift. Since the third years I knew the best were all in different classes, I walked around to see what each class was doing. One teacher brought a guitar and sang for his students, and after the final goodbyes were done, groups of students started gathering together so that their parents could take a class picture.
To end the whole day, me and most of the other teachers gathered inside the entrance to the school, and sent off the third years as they walked out of the school for the last time. This was the point when I could actually say goodbye to the students myself. Everyone took their time leaving as they tried to find teachers they wanted pictures with and talked with their friends. A lot of students had started crying at this point. From what other people have told me, it’s very common in Japan for middle school friends to go to different high schools. For that reason, graduation can be a really emotional time for some students. One student I was saying goodbye to actually started crying as we were talking.
After a long time mingling outside, some of the teachers, had to get ready to host club activities for the first and second year students, so one of the teachers came out of the school with a megaphone and told the third years they had to go home now.
Every school’s graduation is a little bit different in setup depending on what level of school it is and where you are. In general, though, if you go to a graduation ceremony in Japan, here are some essential things to know:
1. Unless you’re a student, dress code is a black suit. If you’re wearing a tie, wear a white one! Don’t wear a black one because those are associated with funerals.
2. It’s probably going to be cold wherever the ceremony is held, so dress in layers.
3. If you don’t know what to do, ask one of the teachers. They’re been doing this for years and they’ll know how to help you.
4. Be prepared for the possibility of crying.
For any current ALTs out there, I hope you enjoyed this graduation season and can enjoy many more if you’re staying in Japan for a while longer! I definitely enjoyed my first experience with graduation. Seeing everyone graduate has already got me thinking about the next school year. In just a few weeks, new first years will be coming and the second years I’m teaching now will only be a year away from their own graduation!