I've recently been sorting through some old prose jottings from the time I spent as a teacher out in rural Japan. During my third and final year there, as I began to realize how little time I had left, I wrote a few simple observational pieces about certain events, so I wouldn't forget them. I'm glad I did. Life was so different and, at times, surreal. It's summed up for me by this description of a typical junior high school 'sotsugyoshiki', or graduation ceremony. I myself didn't have any graduation ceremony from my middle school or high school (as my Japanese co-workers were horrified to learn), and so the idea of this extremely formal, quasi-religious ceremony to give thanks and mourn the passing of a phase in ones life seemed a charming if utterly bizarre concept.
At 10.00, a dead hush over the school gym. As the voices fade, we hear rain beating on the gym roof. Teachers dressed in black suits and white shirts and ties survey row upon row of motionless students. A gloomy moment on the precipice of over three hours of formal duty and boredom. I shiver with the cold and rub my hands together. Mr. Kimoto stands up and delivers a military bark.
The crowd breaks on cue into pulsing, practiced clapping, as the brass band kicks into a somewhat flat rendition of “Thine be the Glory”. The graduating students file in through the centre row to occupy their special places at the front.
We all drop into a bow. 1, 2 and up.
We all sit down in unison, as though the whole thing were a dance move. We practised this for more than an hour yesterday at the formal rehearsal.
Kyoto-sensei (the deputy head) delivers the “Kaishiki no kotoba”, where he announces the opening of Kuse’s 39th annual graduation ceremony. The brass band plays the national anthem “Kimi ga yo” as we stand facing the Japanese flag onstage.
Next they hand out the graduation certificates. Kocho-sensei (the head) takes the stage in his suit and tails, before each homeroom teacher in turn reads the roll of his or her students. As each name is called the child stands and shouts “HAI!”
The lights are dim and there is a tacky, tinkling music box soundtrack. When each class roll call is done, a representative is called to the front. They turn, bow to the guests, go up the stairs, walk like an automaton to the lecturn, wheel round and bow. Kocho proffers the “sotsugyoshosho” (graduation certificate) and reads it, finishing with the date and his full name. The child takes it, bows, spins, bows to the flag, spins back, down the steps, bows to the teachers and returns to his seat.
After all the classes are done, Kocho unrolls a speech brimming with clichés which he reads off in monotone, without extemporisation.
The head of the board of education comes to the stage and delivers a similar speech.
The mayor does the same.
Kyoto introduces the official guests. One by one they bow and say “omedetou gozaimasu” (congratulations).
The head of the outgoing student council takes to the stage to present a memorial gift on behalf of the graduates.
Second grade follow this with a farewell presentation. To a background of tear-jerking piano tunes, an OHP screen displays heartwarming photos of the kids. Second grade praise their sempai (seniors) and thank them for help and kindness. Tears from the girls are obligatory. Together they sing a song.
Third grade representatives now make similar speeches - encompassing at least one very protracted pause in which a female speaker is unable to carry on for hysterical tears. They sing a song.
The brass band now accompanies the entire assembled crowd in a rousing rendition of the Kuse school song.
After Kyoto delivers the “heishiki no kotoba” (closing announcement) the kids troop out through a flower arch held by the children of other grades, while the brass band plays “Auld Lang Syne”. Girls and some boys are openly weeping. Teachers dry eyes and blow noses. I get funny looks for being unmoved.
A tearful Naramoto goes off to conduct her final homeroom class. At 12.15 all third grade classes gather on the terrace to hear the outgoing school council head, Dai Matsumoto, lead them in a final “ippon jime” (ceremonial clapping). They cheer.
Outside, they leave the school for the last time. We all gather in the car park as they run round taking photos and saying goodbye. Girls ask the boys they fancied for metal buttons off their jackets. Uncool kids leave fully buttoned, whilst Dai Matsumoto leaves buttonless.
Third grade teachers get into a minibus decorated in a “Just Married” fashion. The other teachers stand outside clapping as the bus does three victory laps of the car park before taking to the road for a post graduation piss-up weekend in Osaka.