On Wednesday I attended my first elementary school graduation as an ALT. It was kind of sad that I could only attend one of them, since they were held on the same day. Fortunately it was the school with the 6th graders that I knew and got along better with over the past few months.
The graduation ceremony, as with any other Japanese ceremony, was very formal and systematic. I think most Americans witnessing one of these events would think that it was a very ‘boring’ and ‘tense’ atmosphere.
From the time the graduates started coming in, everyone applauded until the entire class reached their seats. The procession was very precise, from the way they walked in to the way they turned to walk in a different direction and so forth. Once the class came in, the applause stopped and that would be one of the few times you would hear clapping for the rest of the ceremony.
The students–especially the girls–looked so wonderful all dressed up. The cuteness of the girls in their ruffly plaid skirts, dark blazers and cute hairstyles would put AKB48 to shame. One girl, who’s a bit of a tomboy, came in wearing a gray suit with slack shorts down to her knees. Some of the boys were already wearing their junior high school uniforms (I love those high collar jackets!). I had wished that I was graduating with them!
Unlike most ceremonies in the U.S., speeches did not come until after the awarding of the diplomas. I’m used to having to sit through a number of long speeches before getting to them, so I was surprised when the diplomas were the very first thing on the list. While most people in the U.S. would end up applauding after every single name called (unless there was an announcement NOT to do so), here it was simply expected to remain silent as each person stepped up to collect their diploma. After that, there were two speeches, one from the principal and the other from the head of the PTA. After the principal’s speech, there was a video of a congratulations from Japanese baseball player Saito Yuuki. I was pretty impressed that they got him to make a video message, and I wasn’t sure if it was just typical of Japanese elementary school graduations or if it had something to do with the fact that the principal’s son is a sports anchor for Fuji TV in Tokyo.
In addition to the parents, school-related officials, and staff, other attendees included the 4th and 5th graders. They were responsible for helping to set up, as well as singing a song for the students and collectively reciting a farewell speech to them. I realized how important it was for them to be there, because the three grades will be together once more when they all enter middle school. The sempai-kouhai (“upperclassman-lowerclassman”) relationship in school is very important in Japan, from the very beginning all the way through high school. When I was in elementary school, I never really knew any of the students above or below me, except for my brother who was three grades ahead of me and the kids who lived in my neighborhood.
Towards the end was a slideshow of the 6th graders with photos of them from 1st grade all the way up to now. Since teachers rotate schools so often after 3 to 6 years, I was wondering if any of the staff was even here during the graduates’ first two years at the school. As the slideshow went on, each of the students narrated part of a speech about their memories at the school, field trips and the like.
At this small school, where there is only one class per grade (with the exception of the current 4th graders, in which there are two), I realized that this class of 32 graduates had been together every single year, and friendships were probably very tight. Unlike with my school–which was probably four times the size of this one–and even many other schools here in Ono and the rest of Japan, these kids didn’t have to think about who was and wasn’t going to be in their class the next year. It was always them from the beginning. As I watched the slideshow, I sort of envied these kids, but not for long. I ended up going to three different elementary schools, with one friend remaining by the time transferred to my third school in 5th grade. By 6th grade graduation, I felt fortunate that I had made so many friends in such a short time, and that they didn’t treat me like an outsider just because I didn’t know them for as long. Some of these people I met in 5th and 6th grade are still my friends today.
As for that one friend I had left when I moved, she has been my best friend for the past 16 years. I had realized after I moved that I really didn’t feel like I was truly friends with anyone at my first school. I was well-known throughout each grade, but it was only for being somewhat of a teacher’s pet. I ended up not keeping in touch with any of those people, but my best friend had faithfully called me and wrote letters all the way up until internet and then driving became accessible for us.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is that these 32 kids have been exclusively together for so long up to now. This will change when they enter middle school, since they’ll be mingling with the kids from my other school (at least; I’m not sure if there are any other kids going to that middle school).
After the slideshow, the kids sang a song in front of the stage, and then thanked the staff for taking care of them, and that’s when their teacher surprised them by telling them that we the staff were going to sing a song for them in return. As we began the song, I looked at some of the students and some of them looked pretty surprised and were smiling. Then after we were done, the 6th graders sang one more song before the ceremony ended. The very end of the ceremony was probably the most unusual part (‘unusual’ as in different from America): After everything was over, the vice-principal just said “The graduation ceremony will now come to a close!” and there was absolute silence and stillness, with the exception of the mechanic sound of the stage curtain lowering automatically.
After that, the students proceeded out of the gym as we all applauded once more, which was just like my own graduation. One thing I’m glad I did have was the after-graduation party at school. I think these kids all went home with their parents and then probably had a nice dinner at some restaurant, which is cool too.