March 4, 2013 | Teaching | 4 Comments
My first year on JET, as I followed the other teachers to the school gym for graduation, I was filled with anticipation and excitement. I was eager to celebrate my students’ accomplishments and the completion of an important step in their education. Hours later I was stiff, cold, and a little confused about what I had just witnessed.
The students, teachers, and parents all sat ramrod strait in their chairs, no one smiled, and things were so choreographed it felt somehow fake. This was nothing like my image of graduations formed from experiences in the United States. When I arrived back in the teacher’s room post ceremony, all the staff was smiling, and talking about how wonderful the graduation had been. My first thought was “WHAT!? That was terrible!”
Almost all of my ALT friends have some story about their first graduation. Not dressing warmly enough, wearing the wrong color neck tie… So for those of you who are about to participate in your first Japanese graduation, I have collected some advice and words of wisdom to hopefully help you not only survive but also enjoy the experience.
- Wear a suit!
- Dress warmly. Even in Tatebayashi (the hottest place in Japan) the gyms are cold this time of year, and you will likely be sitting in an aluminum frame chair for an extended period of time. You will also not be able to wear your winter coats to the ceremony. Wearing heat tech or other layers under your suit can help you stay warm, and a couple of hokkairo in your pockets never hurts. Ladies, some schools may be ok with you having a small fleece lap blanket, but be sure to ask.
- NO BLACK TIES!!! Though they are (or at least were when I came to Japan) a fashionable item for men back home, they are reserved for funerals here. An ALT friend made that mistake his first year, and no one told him until AFTER the graduation ceremony because they “thought it was funny.” Your schools may not share in this joke, so be forewarned. White ties should also be avoided.
- Shoes – the importance of this will likely depend on your school, but I would say 90+ percent of the teachers have indoor shoes that match their suit. If you are like me and have neon yellow Nike’s as your normal indoor shoes, you should probably consider getting some cheep suit appropriate shoes for graduations and start of the year ceremonies.
PTA reps and other “important” people will show up early, and usually be served tea somewhere before going into the gym to wait for the ceremony. This probably won’t concern you in any way but I was asked to serve tea once, so it doesn’t hurt to know.
Each school will be different and length will depend on the size of the graduating class, but here is generally what to expect at junior high and elementary. A general program could look like:
- Students come in by class and are seated boys and girls separately.
- Lots of people are introduced (PTA reps, Mayor, BOE people… any other special guests)
- Speeches… and more speeches…
- Students receive their diplomas one by one, names usually called by their homeroom teacher.
- Congratulatory messages are read from former teachers that could not attend.
- A representative from the graduating class presents the school with some sort of gift (Tree, electric pencil sharpeners, locker units… you name it.)
- Graduating students sing songs
- More speeches…
Keep in mind this is not the ‘party atmosphere’ graduation that I, at least, was used to from the United States. It is VERY quiet and can be intimidating. My first year I was too afraid the shutter on my camera would draw attention so I only took 2 photos. Also, an ALT friend mentioned that he was told not to cross his legs. (i.e. when sitting in a chair crossing one leg over the other…) This is a pretty common and an appropriate way for especially guys to sit back home, but it was seen as too relaxed and not solemn enough for the situation.
The graduates usually go back to their homerooms, and collect their bags, etc., and share final words with their homeroom teachers before leaving the school for good. The underclassmen, parents and teachers will line up somewhere (generally outside leading to the schools main gate) to send off the graduates. Students often have gifts or letters for their bukatsu senpai, and parents often take pictures. This is a much more informal time than the preceding events of the day. I REALLY suggest that you make sure you are at this and not lost in the teacher’s room. This is the last chance for the students to take photos with you at school, and say goodbye and thank you. Also there is usually a back up location in the event of inclement weather.
Other General Words of Wisdom
- The teachers will be VERY busy on graduation day, so if you are concerned about schedules, what you should do or what’s for lunch (Kyushoku is usually not served by the way) ask your JTE or another teacher the day or week before the actual graduation.
- It’s probably fine to take photos and videos BUT I recommend that you confirm this with your JTE or another staff member.
- Even if your school only has 6 graduates (like one of my elementary schools), they are REALLY good at dragging the ceremony out. Use the restroom beforehand! No seriously…
- After the graduates have left campus, most of the teachers change out of their suits as fast as humanly possible. You survived graduation, so there is no reason you shouldn’t change and be comfy in the afternoon too!
Though the Japanese have a different way of expressing their celebratory feelings at times like graduation, I think it is important to remember that deep down their emotions are the same as people in our home countries. Now on my 4th year as an ALT, I am more familiar with Japanese graduation ceremonies and can honestly appreciate and feel joy (although somewhat stifled) seeing my students walk across the stage, receiving their diplomas. Whether this is your first graduation or your 5th, I hope you will also be able to share with your students and teachers the sadness of an ending, the joy of new beginnings.