The Japanese school year ends in March and begins in April, which means that it’s graduation season. I recently attended my school’s junior and senior high school graduation ceremonies, and I was surprised by how serious they were. I guess I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised – every Japanese school ceremony I’ve attended to so far has been very formal and procedural. But graduation is such a happy and exciting occasion, I thought it might be different. But just like all the other school ceremonies, the graduations were serious and somber, very different from the cheerful and lively graduation ceremonies that I am used to in the United States. Graduation is a big deal, no matter where in the world you live, but Japan and the United Sates do it a bit differently.
The Japanese graduation ceremony was rigidly structured, full of long silences and longer bows. The mood was almost grave. It felt more like attending the funeral of some very important person than a celebratory event. Teachers wore their finest, all-black suits. The graduates wore the spiffiest versions of their school uniforms and flower corsages. Even though my school does not have many students, the ceremonies were hours long, with most of the time occupied by silence and bowing. Each person who spoke bowed three times – to the principals, the school’s owners, and the audience – before entering or exiting the stage. There was no clapping until the very end of the ceremony, and the lack of applause sounded strange to my American ears. The students were dead silent and completely respectful. They sat up straight and bowed deeply – basically the total opposite of how they acted in my class all year.
First, each student came on stage to receive their diplomas from the principal, bowing one before and once after. Then it was time for special recognitions, of which there were a lot. There were awards for academics, clubs, attendance, and other things I didn’t understand. I feel like almost every kid in Junior High received some kind of award. Then there were speeches by the principal, an honorary speaker, and finally by one of the students. Even though it was the student’s turn to speak, she stood on the ground, addressing the principal, who stood on stage. Finally, we sang the Japanese graduation song, “Aogeba Tōtoshi,” and the school song, and then stood up and clapped for the graduates as they walked out.
In the US, graduation goes a little differently. It is loud and cheerful affair – still a formal event with set procedures, but a completely different mood. The students are all smiles, and there’s lots of applause and cheering, and a general feeling of glee. Graduates wear caps and gowns, and the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” march is played as they walk in. When students receive their diplomas, family and friends in the audience clap and cheer loudly. At the end of the ceremony, students turn their tassels from left to right, throw their caps up in the air, and the class song is played. My high school graduation ceremony was an exciting, jovial event, not serious at all. I remember giggling with my friends onstage and cheering loudly as I threw up my cap. There isn’t any room for this type of behavior at a Japanese graduation ceremony.
I was invited to my junior high school’s after-graduation party, which was organized by the parents. The party was much more light-hearted and fun, more like what I’m used to in a graduation event. It was held in one of my schools gyms, which was dressed up with paper decorations and pictures. Everyone sat at tables, and we ate lunch while a photo slideshow played. The students got up to take about a zillion photos with the teachers. Then there was a video, a game where the teachers had to guess who the students were from their baby photos, and a song. Finally, the students presented flowers and gifts to the principals and to their homeroom teachers. In Japan, teachers receive flowers at graduation, while in the US it’s the students who get flowers. I think that in general, Japanese graduation is more about thanking and honoring the teachers, and American graduation is more about celebrating the students’ accomplishments.
After the party, I said goodbye to the students, and actually got a couple hugs and genuine “Thank yous,” which was a nice surprise. I’m glad that I was able to attend graduation, and reflect back on my own graduation in the United Sates. I don’t think that Japanese students and families are any less excited about graduation, they just don’t openly show this excitement during the ceremony as we do in the US. I also think it’s interesting that there even there even is a ceremony for junior high school graduation in Japan. My junior high school didn’t have a graduation ceremony, and I feel like it’s not considered much of an accomplishment to finish middle school in the US. In Japan however, junior high school is the end of state-required education (though most of the population does go on to high school), so graduating middle school is a big deal. So to my students, though I could not show it through applause, I am very happy and excited for you! Anata ni omedeto – congratulations to you!