The end of February? Sailor uniforms? Bowing 800 times? Yes, this is a Japanese high school graduation ceremony.
The Japanese school year starts in April, for some reason. Kids still get a block of summer vacation too, so they come to school for two months and then they’re gone for a month. Weird!
Anyways, because of that, high schoolers graduate at the end of February instead. Ours was on February 28, preceded by rehearsals the day before, because as my teacher put it, “practicing is very Japanese.” In said rehearsals, students were made to scream, jump up and down while singing the school’s alma mater, and practice standing up and sitting down at the right speed over and over. We teachers got to watch, but we also had to practice how to bow properly (hot tip: it’s a 40° tilt and 3-count).
Actual graduation was a very serious, somber affair. It was punctuated with speeches from many different adults, from the principal to the board of education chair to the head of the PTA association. These were all, at least from the sound of them, very dry, and often read straight off a paper. There definitely weren’t any jokes, or even snappy pop culture references. It’s probably better that way.
The students just wear their regular school uniform for graduation, without any pomp or circumstance. My school’s uniform is pretty much the most archetypal Japanese uniform you can get, the classic gakuran for boys and serafuku (sailor uniforms) for girls, whose names you may not know but will recognize immediately upon seeing them. Accessories include a Roman numeral pin attached to your collar (for men) or neckerchief (for women) to indicate your year. Buttons are engraved with the school crest. To me, they’re pretty stylish. To the kids, they’re not fans and they want the same uniforms as other high schools in the area, with blazers and sweaters and ties. Between early 20th-century sailor uniforms or the mid-20th century Ivy look, it really is a win-win.
Back to graduation, a play-by-play: everyone files in, sans third-years (high school is only three years). We stand and sing the Japanese national anthem, “Kimi Ga Yo.” The principal gives a speech. Each time someone new comes on stage, everyone is to stand, bow for 3 counts, and sit down. The third years enter and take their seats in the front rows, to the tune of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” A little unfitting, if you ask me, but hey, I’m just a foreigner observing. The rest was a blur of speeches and bowing. The students don’t physically receive any diplomas. At least, not during the ceremony. Instead, their names are called one by one, they yell “hai” and stand up. The underclassmen representative gives a thank-you speech from the rest of the school. More speeches from more people, as mentioned before, and well, that’s it. We also sing the school’s alma matter and few other select songs. No graduating student goes up on stage. No laughter, no applause. Not until the very end as they exit (to “Sotsugyo Shashin”; Graduation Picture), and yes, there are at least tears. Now the audience and teachers will be clapping, for maybe four or five minutes straight. And… the end! These brave men and women are now out and about in the world, some to college, some to technical schools, others home to study for more entrance exams, and oh, the places they’ll go!