This past Friday was the graduation ceremony (setsugyou shiki) at my local Junior High School. This event marks the end of compulsory education for the san-nenseis (ninth graders), and the last time that they will be together as a class. It is an extremely big deal, particularly in small towns with dwindling populations. The better students will go on to high school in larger centers, while other students will stay at the high school here in town. For reference, my high school has many students from the city who couldn't get in to other schools.
There was a buzz of excitement in the air when I got to school in the morning. All of the students were in their uniforms (as opposed to their usual track suits), the principal wore tails and grey pinstripe slacks, and all of the teachers were in suits. School uniforms in Japan are a serious affair. The boys wear suits with high collars and brass buttons, and the girls wear pleated skirts with knee socks even in Hokkaido winters. Everyone looked very somber and formal. Well, at least from the ankles up everyone looked formal. Most of the teachers and all of the students were wearing their regular indoor shoes. Myself included. Nothing quite dresses up a dark suit like a pair of hot pink gardening clogs.
The school hallways had been decorated: there were sakura (cherry blossoms) in abundance, even though we still have at least a meter of snow on the ground. Paper birds hung from the ceiling, and a giant heart made of tissue-paper flowers adorned the doors to the gym. The first and second year students were at the entrance, handing out red carnations for the graduating class to pin to their uniforms, to distinguish them from the other students. I stood around and greeted the san-nenseis with an"omedetou gozaimasu!" (congratulations) as they arrived, but there was really nothing for me to do until the ceremony started.
Eventually parents started arriving, everyone in their best clothes. There were even a few in formal kimono. Dignitaries and invited guests started to arrive. The mayor, the school superintendent, the head of the PTA, Watanabe-san (my friend from the Rotary club), teachers from the high school, the local elementary school principals -- in all about thirty non-parents were in attendance.
The ceremony started at ten. The first and second year students were seated at the far side of the gym along with the teachers, opposite the parents and dignitaries. There was a large stage, covered in flowers in the middle of the gym. In front of the stage were seats for the graduating class. Promptly at ten, the ceremony was opened by the vice-principal. In pairs, the students entered, precision marching to their seats. After some brief words from the principal, the conferring of diplomas began.
One by one, the principal called out the names of the graduating students. One by one, the students shouted "Hai!" and approached the stage to receive their diploma. The principal called out the name of the student again and their graduation number. With a low bow, the student accepted their diploma and made their way off-stage. With diploma in hand, they made their way to the crowd of guests where they bowed again. The next stop was their parents, where they bowed again and presented their diploma to their parents before returning to sit with the rest of their classmates. During the conferring of diplomas to the class of about 35, there was nothing to be heard other than soft string music, and the sound of sniffling. All of the girls had started crying as the names of their classmates were called.
After everyone had received their diploma, the speeches began. First, the important dignitaries. Seemingly everyone made a speech. Afterwards, there were remarks from the other students about the san-nenseis. The san-nenseis made a reply. The student who gave the speech could barely speak he was crying so much. This set everyone else to crying, most of all the san-nensei homeroom teacher. He was shaking with sobs, and the principal had to pass him a packet of tissues. All of the students were crying. Towards the end of the ceremony, the two groups of students sang to each other, but all of them were crying so much that there was hardly any singing going on.
In all, the ceremony took about two hours. I think the last convocation I attended took about the same length of time.
After the formal ceremony, the remaining students, teachers and parents lined the driveway of the school to see off the san-nenseis. We waved good bye and wished them well.
Later, in the teachers room, we were finished for the day. We ordered in some lunch, talked about the point in the ceremony where nearly everyone was crying, and plannned the evenings enkai. It sounded like fun, but I already had plans -- next year perhaps.