Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pomp & Circumstance: J-Style

Today was graduation day at Sakai Junior High School (the Japanese school year ends in March); thus, I got to participate in my first graduation ceremony (1) in Japan and (2) as a teacher. In some ways, the ceremony reminded me a lot of my own graduation experiences in the USA. Allow me to share some universals:

- Moms cry a lot.
- Participants are forced to sit through lots of long speeches.
- Gym lighting makes for weird pictures (see above).
- The school band plays "Pomp and Circumstance" (yup, same song, even here in Japan).

But, this being Japan and all, of course some things are bound to be different. And, as the saying goes, the difference is in the details. Lots and lots and lots of details. In fact, the painstaking attention to detail in a Japanese graduation ceremony make the U.S. version look like, well, a 5-year-old's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

That's not to say that we Americans don't prepare for graduation. When I graduated from junior high school, I had to be fitted for a gown, for example. And I remember meeting my fellow 8th graders in the gym for a quick rehearsal, where the folks in charge showed us where to stand and sit and how not to trip on our walk across the stage. Things like that.

This all pales in comparison to Japanese graduation prep. Sakai Junior High has been abuzz for weeks with meetings, paperwork and rehearsals. Last week, classes were cancelled one afternoon to give students time to get ready.

But the day-before practice is the stuff of legends.

Yesterday I joined ALL the students - not just graduating third years - in the gym for an all-morning (read: 4-hour) rehearsal. The first order of business was bowing - presumably something that any Japanese person has been doing since he or she has been able to walk. Nonetheless, we spent an ENTIRE HOUR rehearsing the bow, making sure all students dipped at the perfect angle in perfect sequence. Next, graduating third year students rehearsed receiving their diplomas. The principal read each of their 150-some-odd names as they practiced walking toward the stage, walking up the stairs, bowing, grasping their diploma one hand at a time, holding it over their heads, and then bowing again in unison with the next student in line. Then, first- and second-year students practiced clapping in unison as their graduating third-year peers filed into the gym.

There was singing practice. There were remarks from the principal and vice-principal. There was a short break when teachers went back to the staff room to discuss what needed to be improved. (Their verdict? Bowing, of course.) There was more bowing practice. And finally, because the Japanese graduate in their school uniforms instead of the ol' cap and gown, there was an appearance check. Teachers made sure that uniform pants, socks and skirts were the right length, buttons were where they should be, collars were pressed, hair was an acceptable length, and eyebrows were unplucked (really).

Lest we be underprepared, students then spent the afternoon cleaning the school, raking the lawn, hanging signs, and even clearing small pebbles from the parking lot. The place was immaculate.

All of this for a 90-minute ceremony.

But, oh, what a ceremony it was. I felt so proud as my third years marched into the gym (in perfect unison, of course). I silently cheered as they nailed each of their three zillion bows. I got little goosebumps as they sang their school song for the final time. Despite the language barrier, I got a little misty when a third year homeroom teacher cried through his address to graduating students' parents. And I was flattered when graduating students gave me flowers and hand-written messages after the ceremony, considering I was one of dozens of teachers and friends that they had to remember of their big day.

I'd never seen the third year students look so happy. I will miss them dearly when the new school year starts in April.

So I guess all the Pomp and Circumstance paid off in the end. Just don't ask me to practice my bow anytime soon.

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