March is the season for graduation ceremonies here in Japan. I went to one of my JHS graduations last week and this morning I sat in on the rehearsal for one of my elementary schools. It's a very serious affair to go from the elementary school to jr. high or jr. high to senior high. And even the rehearsals are rigourous.
The kids must sit up straight, looking straight ahead, with both feet flat on the floor and their hands resting on their knees in loose fists. The teachers prowl around, correcting the posture of anyone who slips and starts to slouch, moving hands back to the knees, and kicking feet out from under chairs and back to the front where they belong. Some kids get little speeches of encouragement that end with "gambarre yo." Which loosely translated means "suck it up and be a man yo." I usually sit slouching with one knee bouncing out of control, but even I felt the pressure to sit up and be still. It almost killed me, but if my little first graders could do it, then so could I.
The sixth (or third in jr. high school) graders come in, moving with military precision, bow, and sit down. When they go up to receive their diplomas, they bow, take the certificate one hand at a time, then step back and bow deeply, holding the diploma over their head. Then they turn on their heel and walk stiffly with their paper to the side, the other arm swinging slightly. This is the part where I sleep with my eyes open and/or concentrate very hard on sitting still.
Afterwards there are lots of long boring speeches, which thankfully today I was spared, (unlike last week.) Then the younger students say their thankyous - carefully rehearsed speeches shouted from their seats one person at a time. Then they sing to the graduating class. Then the graduating class remembers all the good times they had, once again with carefully rehearsed speeches. They sing to the younger kids. And then they they all sing together. At my jr. high last week several of the girls got very emotional. Tears streamed down their face as they sang the last song before marching out. I almost cried myself and I don't even know most of their names.
They asked me later what I thought. Omoshirokata, I said. It was interesting. But, very different from American ceremonies, I told them. The thought of the guy at my high school who did a back flip and landed on his face as he walked across the stage to get his diploma sprang to mind. I didn't tell my teachers about him because I don't have the Japanese to explain it. Although I can just imagine their horrified looks if I had.