Saturday, March 12, 2005

Graduation: Japanese Junior High Style

Kiritsu! 起立す!

Rei! 礼!

Shot like cold bullets from an assault riffle, the commands to 'Stand at attention' and 'Bow!' made my first Japanese Junior High Graduation Ceremony seem more like a trip to boot camp. Solmen and quiet (aside from the incessant shouting to stand, sit and bow), the chill of the unheated gym was intensified by the formal, militaristic overtones of the ceremony.

Cold and rainy, clouds clung to the mountainsides surrounding Ena as they slid down into the city, and seemed even to haunt the quiet halls of Higashi Chu. In America, graduation was always a joyous occassion, despite the fact that life long friends would be going their separate ways. Friends and family cheered as students entered the ceremony. They cheered throughout the ceremony. They cheered even when they weren't supposed to and the principal asked them not too! The point I am trying to make is that they cheered! There was no stopping the shouts of congratulations from the stands as each student made their way across the stage (sometimes with some sort of gymnastic feat (cartwheels come to mind) or joke), and many of the speeches, though moving, made us laugh. They inspired us. And when it was all over, we leapt for joy, threw our caps in the air and partied on! My graduation and senior year memories are some of the best of my life.

Well, this was the exact opposite of what I just described. Depressing. Dreary. Dull. Dead silence.

After arrving at school I slowly slid thru the door to the teachers room, where all the 3rd year teachers, wearing Hakama (formal kimono), were busy getting ready for the main event. Being very impressed by the Japanese-ness of it all, I turned around and saw the principal, dressed in a coat-tailed suit and wearing white gloves, and waddling around like a penguin. How can Hakama and coat-tailed suits coexist without anyone blinking an eye! What an interesting coincidence of opposites....

The rest of us filled the gym, waiting for the grand entrance of the third year classes, led by their homeroom teachers. In Japan, students do not change class rooms. They are with the same kids for every lesson, all year, as teachers move from room to room. It is the homeroom teacher, whom they see every morning before school and in their kaeri no kai (going home meeting) who becomes their advisor, mentor, and friend, competing in sports day with them, helping the students to fill out their high school applications, and even taking them to their tests. They are councilors and confidants, and know much more about these kids than their parents do.

As the teachers led them in, slowly walking down the aisle, my eyes filled with tears. My students looked so much more mature than when I arrived in September. They have grown up so much! Higashi was my first school, the one I spent the most time at, so I feel very attatched to the students here, especially the 3rd year students. All the good memories of Sports Festival and the Chorus Festival, of the boys shouting out 'I love you' and the girls screaming 'Kawaii!' in the middle of class, snowball fights at recess, and 'cleaning' time flashed before my blurry eyes.

Then the 'important people' started talking, and my blurry eyes were sucked dry! Who were those guys? They were all from the BOE of Ena or some prefectural education office. None of them had anything inspiring or useful to say. None of them even knew the students. It was such a waste. And it went on for what seemed like for-ev-er.

Finally it was time for the students to recieve their graduation certificates. As they shouted out each name the students stood up with a loud "Hai!" until the entire class was standing. But to my suprise, only the student leaders of each class were called up to acccept the certificates from the principal. It shouldn't have beens suprising at all. This is Japan! The group is always acknowledge before the individual. I guess I just cant shake my own cultural bearings. In America, we had no loyalty to any class group. I think we had homeroom but I dont remember anything about it. I do know that the most important part of graduation was making the trip across the stage, alone, being recognized as an individual for your individual accomplishment. Sure, it took some time, but it was much more meaningful than a bunch of political windbags talking about nothing and putting people to sleep!

Blah blah blah, more horribly boring sleep inducing speeches from God knows who (aforementioned important people, AKA political windbags)...

Until finally the 1st and 2nd grader students rose to their feet. The 3rd years turned back to face them, at the command of the MC ofcourse, and a 2grader wished them luck and thanked them for their friendship and guidance during the past 2 years. Then they began to sing a beautiful, moving song about all the memories they had made, and how hard it was to say goodbye. I've heard them practice singing it a million times, but without the voices of the 3rd years it sounded so .... different. Many of the 3rd years, who had been pretty strong about not crying up to this point, busted out into tears.

Then Misa Adachi, one of the most brilliant students in Ena and class president, stood up to give a speech. Misa was one of the first students I met. She came to the office during the summer with the other girls that had gone to Austraila, and made Colin and I peace cookies. She often told me that she wanted to be just like me when she grew up, teaching in foreign countries and having adventures. Just seeing her walk to the podium almost made me cry. Another one of my favorites, Yuki Nakabayashi, walked up with her, climbing a small podium to lead the 3rd years in song as a conductor.

Her speech was awesome, full of good memories, challenges , triumphs, and hope for the future. Everyone was crying: 3rd year boys, teachers, and parents. As the 3rd year student sang to the 1st and 2nd years, they too began to cry. It was the most moving part of the whole ceremony. It should have ended there. But ofcourse it was followed by more boring speeches and silent intervals before the 3rd year students were officially graduated and filed out, class by class, down the isle of weeping mothers and underclassmen.

Each class went back to their homerooms, where the teachers handed out their certificates and were presented with gifts and thank you cards made my their students. I went to Kojima's class, the best teacher at Higashi, not to mention one of the best English teachers in Ena. He prepared separate speeches for each of his students, so that as he gave them their certificate, both of he and the student would go from laughing to crying as he reminisced about their 3 years together. It was so real...Thats how the ceremony should have been. The teachers who actually know the students up there reminiscing, congratulating, challenging and inspiring their kids to move on to bigger and better things.
I got to hang out with the kids as they slowly made their way out of Higash Jr. High for the last time. Their tears had dried and they were shooting peace signs and taking pictures. What a great group of kids...I will never forget them! I wish I had more time to get to know them, but hopefully I will still get to see them walking around Ena in their cool new high school uniforms.


Ryaninja said...

Hi, I found your blog through your comments on Matsumo's blog. Just wanted to praise you on your blog really. You have an interesting writing style, and I especially like this post, as I've read Matsumo's writings on a view from an atypical Japanese person, and it was good to get a Westerner's perspective on the whole scenario!

Anyway, keep up the good work, one day I will get to Japan, but until then, I'm enjoying reading your accounts, and getting some insight I wouldn't get from language tapes and books...!

Matsumo said...


Thank you for visiting my blog. I'm glad to know that my blog is read by an ALT in my neighboring prefecture!

I read some part of your blog, and I'm happy to learn that you enjoy your life in Japan with your good students. I was especially impressed by your discription about the graduation ceremony.

Thank you for praising my English. But I'm sure you would be surprised if you knew what a poor speaker of English I am. I am one of those victims of English education in Japan.

25 is a bit too young for marriage in Japan, I guess.

Lindizzy said...

That's so touching. I envy your experience working for JET. I wish I could get to know my students like you do! What a shame... Anyway, I replied to your post on my blog, check it out. I'm gonna try to post a new one tonight. Get ready for sumo!!