Vitamin C Lyrics Go Here: Junior High School Graduation
March 11, 2010
It’s been about nine months since I thought graduation ceremonies were out of my life. At least for the next year of it. Back then, I (thought I) ended my commencement career listening to Wynton Marsalis jam on a trumpet before having the sky unload several swimming pools worth of rain onto the newly minted Northwestern class of 2009. Over the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, the last thought lurking in my mind was “well, can’t way to do that again next Spring!” I was just thankful to be finished with school and to be tasting caviar for the first time.
Thanks to Japan’s school schedule, though, graduation time came this week, on Tuesday. Of course, I found myself on the opposite side of things this time around – instead of having to march out in front of staff and family, I’d get to watch from the side of the heavily decorated gym. The Japanese junior high school graduation ceremony both resembles its American equivalent but also couldn’t be more different.
The happening begins just like I remember my junior high school graduation did – with the students walking into the gym before taking a seat. The only notable difference was this school had an actual band, comprised of younger students, playing music. A giant step ahead of my graduation, which featured the sounds of (then) Puff Daddy’s Police rip-off “I’ll Be Missing You” blaring out of the loudspeakers. They play the Japanese national anthem then the school’s official song. The first standout difference is that the younger grades have to attend the ceremony…no day off for them. A good amount of parents also show up, though the decision to hold the even on a Tuesday morning in a country where taking time off from work rarely happens meant it didn’t seem nearly as crowded as any American ceremony I’ve been to. The present parents did come armed with all sorts of cameras and video equipment to record the memories.
After an opening speech by the principal, the diplomas (or whatever the Japanese equivalent of a diploma) get handed out. Students go on stage one at a time to accept the papers. Instead of shaking hands with the principal, they grasp the paper with both hands and then bow to him. The student then exited the stage and approached the mass of parents. The student then held up his or her diploma for everyone to see, ala a more shameful boxing match card girl, then put it down on a table. Following this, a few members of the local government and the PTA addressed the students. Par for the course.
Then the graduation turned uniquely Japanese.
The graduating students turned to face the younger classes, who begin reciting short blasts of words at the older kids. It’s like an NBA Cares commercial where the scene jumps from a kid to Steve Nash to some kid to Dwight Howard as they each say one sentence of a thread-together message. A barely-there piano melody plays over the PA system to add to the “The More You Know Feel” of the whole thing. Then a student goes up to a piano on the stage, plays a tune and the graduating class sings a song. It’s a tune about moving on or growing up, and it absolutely wrecks the students. Half the kids start crying midway through the song while the rest just look like they are on the verge of bawling. It’s really affecting. The song ends…then the graduating students, still fighting back tears, do the message thing for the younger students. Then they sing another song. Anyone with dry eyes at this point is probably a cyborg of some sort. Even parents and a handful of teachers were crying. Students then walk out to applause, and it’s all over.
Things don’t end there. Staff, family and younger students line up in the halls, holding gifts, to say goodbye to the departing third-years. After that, general picture taking/yearbook signing madness. Then…they head out for the last time. And the teacher’s get a special lunch.
Despite a few glaring similarities, the more I think about the ceremony the more I believe it’s totally different than an American graduation. I’ve never seen as much emotion spill out of an American commencement, especially one just for junior high. I’d chalk that up mostly to the fact there is a very real possibility a lot of these students won’t see each other again – American junior high school students usually end up in the same high school unless they choose to go to a private school, most likely because they want to get away from these people next to them. The Japanese entrance exam system allows for the possibility of classmates’ dreams of going to the same school to be dashed. If you don’t score high enough, you won’t be attending. Considering a lot of these students will have to take these exams just one week after graduating, you can probably guess emotions are high. Whatever the reason, it was a whole lot more emotional (and thus gripping) than the typical American graduation ceremony, in which you just want it to end so you can make it to Black Angus in time.
Oh, and such a good lunch. Sashimi and fried shrimp, don’t mind if I do!
(Japanese Fun Fact #48: Most teachers at graduation wear suits. The third-year homeroom teachers, though, wear full blown kimonos.)