Archive | March, 2013

all good things come to an end

26 Mar

Last Friday was the 84th and final graduation ceremony at one of my elementary schools, Showa Elementary.  Because the population of Japan is decreasing and the population of non-metropolitan cities is decreasing even more steeply, the number of students in the school was dropping (Japanese classes average between 30-40 students in a class, and my first grade class had 12 students) and the decision was made to merge it with another public elementary school in the district.  It’s a little sad for the students, who naturally are fond of their elementary school, but I think it’s more sad for the teachers, who will be scattered to different schools next year.  The teachers at this particular elementary school were really great, kind, and enthusiastic about teaching; they were always invested in creating fun English lessons for the kids (rather than sitting back and just letting me do all the work) and were really helpful and welcoming to me when I was first getting situated in Japan.  This is the school where, when I had culture shock and was afraid everyone might hate me, everyone came together and told me that they loved me.  I’ve gone out to food and drinks with the teachers from this school multiple times, and when I was sick, one of my coworkers there brought me medicine and supplies.  When I gave my leaving speech on my last day, I made the principal cry, and she said that I had brightened everyone’s lives and made the school a better place.  So, needless to say, I was really, really sad to see it closing.

I may have cried through the whole ceremony, but even so, it was interesting to experience a Japanese public school graduation.  I went to public school for elementary school, and while we had an assembly where the leaving class (in my case, 4th grade) were given awards like perfect attendance and straight As, it was definitely not called a graduation, and we weren’t given diplomas or anything of the like.  But in Japan, every level of school from pre-school/kindergarten (in Japan the two are basically the same thing; 幼稚園, yochien, is pre-school day school which has a class for 3, 4, and 5 year olds) to elementary, junior high, high school, college, and on have graduation ceremonies with formal proceedings, suits, ties, lots of singing, and speeches from everyone and their mother (literally– there was a speech from a parent representative thanking the teachers for their hard work at both my elementary and junior high graduation ceremonies).

ImageOne interesting thing about the ceremony was that while in junior high, a graduating student and an underclassman had each given a speech, one reflecting on her junior high school experience and the other thanking the graduating students for their leadership and wishing them well in high school, in elementary school, the interaction between younger students and graduating students was much more performative.  The graduating students and the underclassmen faced on another in groups, and first, the underclassmen wished the graduating students well in a sort of composition where each student said a phrase or a sentence, coming together to create a speech of sorts.  Then, the underclassmen sang a song together.  Afterwards, the graduating students responded in a similar way, as well as reflecting on their elementary school experience, and each student got to speak at least once.  Then, the graduating students also sang.  It was very touching, and needless to say, I cried.

One more interesting point of graduation in my town (if not more places) is that it seems to always be accompanied by cherry blossom tea.  However, from now on, I think I’ll stick to looking at cherry blossoms, rather than drinking them.



15 Mar

Wednesday was the day of the graduation ceremony for my junior high school, and let me tell you, it was a Big Deal.  In my experience in America, public junior high school graduations aren’t usually extravagant; mine wasn’t even called a graduation, but a “finale” or something of the like, I guess to signify to our parents that they shouldn’t get too excited; we weren’t going to get a diploma or anything like that.  I’ve heard similar stories from friends; while there was a little something to celebrate the accomplishment of finishing three years of schooling, it wasn’t a formal graduation ceremony.  

However, here, where pretty much everything is formal, junior high school graduation is a very important occasion.  I was told to wear a formal suit, which I dutifully did, wearing my hair and makeup much the same as I do every day.  However I arrived at school to find that everyone had done the same– which is hugely different from normal, when usually I’m the only person in the school who dresses up.  My coworkers, who usually wear track suits or slouchy sweaters and their hair in ponytails or, for the guys, barely having been brushed after waking up, were dressed to the nines in fancy suits with pearls and extravagant updos for the women and clearly styled hair and silk ties for the men.  I was glad I always dress up, since I fit right in with the crowd by and large, but the real surprise was the one female third-year (the graduating class) teacher, who was dressed in a full formal graduation kimono.  

The kids, who are usually allowed to wear school-issue sweatsuits to class (presumably to allow them to study more comfortably) were also dressed up in their formal uniforms, and the third year students all had flowers for their lapels in their class colour.  They filed into the gym to classical music, did sharp military turns at every corner, and all stood and sat in unison.  They were required to stand, bow, sit, and then immediately stand up again multiple times throughout the ceremony, and did so as if they had been trained by a drill sergeant– no wonder they had been practicing for graduation for the past few weeks, I realized!  

The ceremony was long and included each student having her or his name called before receiving her or his diploma, a speech from the principal, speeches from various PTA and school board people, a speech from a representative from the parents of the graduating students, a speech from a second year (remaining student) and a speech from a third year (graduating student).  There was a bunch of ceremonial walking around and receiving and giving of gifts, and at the end, the first and second year remaining students and the third years both sang songs.  It was much like an American graduation in that it was long and boring, but it all was made worse by the fact that we were sitting stiff as boards in the freezing school gymnasium.  

Probably the most exciting part of the ceremony was the fact that three students fainted over the course of the morning.  I was very alarmed at the time when students started suddenly falling out of their chairs, but I learned later from other friends in the area that this is in fact normal.  I’ve heard it theorized that it’s because of how rigidly the students are forced to sit during class, but whatever the reason, in my town, it’s common for students to simply faint in the middle of graduation.  Who would have guessed.  

This year’s graduation wasn’t so sad for me… because of entrance exams and because my third years have behavioral issues, I didn’t teach them this year.  But next year, when this year’s second years graduate, I’m sure I’ll be very sad… I guess I’ll just have to enjoy my last year with them to the fullest!