A western graduation is like a festival, bright colors and smiles. However, graduation in Japan is a stark contrast to the festivals of the west. When I went to my first graduation ceremony, I thought it was strange that there was a ceremony even for junior high school, but as I watched the process and formality that went into each ceremony for the graduating students, I realized that maybe the idea wasn’t so strange.
In spring—and for most schools—at the beginning of March, students graduate from junior high school. For months, they studied for the difficult entrance exams of their dream high schools and even worried over complicated interviews. So the ceremonies that are held for them are quite indicative of all the work not only the students have put in, but also all the students’ home room teachers have put in.
The first ceremony for graduating third-years is the farewell ceremony or 送る会 (okurukai). Each school’s ceremony is different, but all ceremonies play videos of the children’ memories from their first year to their last. At my base school, they sang songs, played group games, received video messages from teachers from yesteryear, talked about their experiences in junior high school, and received well wishes from their second and first-year 後輩 (kohais) or juniors. When it was all said and done, I knew they would be balling their eyes out during graduation.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the students walked in stone-faced. They sat in rows according to their homeroom class with their 代表 (daihyo) or class representative at the top of the row. As the third-year homeroom teachers (dressed in hakama or traditional academic kimonos) called their names, they stood up with a firm hai! and waited for the representative to walk up to the stage and accept the stack of graduation certificates from the principle. After each class received their certificates, the ceremony moved on to speeches from the principle and prominent members of the local teaching community (i.e, principles from their previous elementary schools and association members). When the speeches finished, the students sang the school song for a final time before turning around to face their juniors and parents to sing the farewell song together. As we clapped the kids out of the gymnasium and I saw those faces crack into tears, I knew I would miss them but wished them the best.
The students had prepped for almost two weeks for the big whammy, the graduation ceremony. Graduation ceremonies in Japan are all pomp and circumstance with all black suits and formality. The students wear their student uniforms, cleaned pristinely the day before, cut their hair, and put on contacts (glasses are apparently so ダサい). It is truly a ceremony marking a new chapter in their lives, and the students treat it as such. Last year, I was impressed by how emotional each student became because i myself didn’t cry for both of my graduations (i’m a cold-hearted soul), but seeing third-years struggle a second year for the entrance exams and the chance to get into their dream high school made me empathize even more.
After the ceremony, the students do a final goodbye in their homerooms classes and come outside to say goodbye to their teachers. I took pictures with some of the students and wished many of them well. On the same day—unlike last year—they would receive their entrance exam results. Many of the students came back later that same day to talk to the teachers and thank them for successfully getting into their high schools. Many of the students who wrote me a thank you letter came back to tell me they passed and to thank me for a final time. Some of the students did not get into their first-choice high schools, but luckily (and like university in the US) they had second and third-choice high schools to move on to.
High school in Japan is very similar to the university experience in the United States. High school in Japan can make or break a student’s academic career because the prestigiousness of the high school often outweighs the university. Of course, getting into a well-known university will help them in their eventual job pursuit, but if you don’t start with a good high school, it will be harder to go to that high-level university. University in Japan tends to be more about students having fun as they’ve worked hard up to that point, grades and GPAs don’t matter as much unless they plan on going overseas, and they can only go job hunting from there
After the ceremony, you also get a pretty awesome lunch box.
Next year, the first-year students that welcomed me about two years ago will graduate—an exciting end to an era.
Interested in being an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Program and experiencing Japanese graduations for yourself? Check out my guide on how to apply to the Program and teach English in Japan!