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In the West, we know nothing about "formal". In fact, what we consider to be formal events or ceremonies seem mostly disorganized, completely casual and even barbaric in comparison to similar events in Japan. This is not to say that formal functions in the West are poorly planned or disorganized, but the Japanese take planning to a whole new level, leaving no detail up to chance. By comparison, we are like drunk monkeys in tuxedos trying, but failing, to put on a good show. The Japanese like for everyone to be on the same proverbial page and the only way to ensure this is to make an event as formal, as prescripted and as anal as possible. In a land where being out of step with everyone else is the biggest fault you can commit, it is natural for the formalities of important occasions, like the graduation ceremony, to be strictly enforced.

And the Japanese love to put on a big show. Graduation, the completion of one phase of studies, is a major life event. And for this reason, there is no originality, no creative input, no changes from year to year, for fear of marring the memory of the day. The graduation ceremony that I took part in my first year was exactly (and I mean down to the timing!) the same as it was the second time around.

What follows is an account of the graduation ordeal at the junior high school where I currently work in small town Japan. However, having compared notes with teachers in various parts of the country, most schools are just as fanatic and formal. Graduation ceremonies of this kind are not limited to junior and senior high schools or universities, but take place on a similar scale in elementary schools and even kindergartens.

The Preparations (準備)

Before the ceremony, the entire school is given a once over. Since it is standard at all Japanese schools for students to do the daily cleaning, it is the students that are responsible for making the school look perfect for the big day. The gardens are weeded, the windows washed, the floors swept and everything put in perfect order. For about three hours the students run about the school doing everything from picking up pebbles from the driveway to buffing the staircase railings.

The gymnasium is prepared meticulously. Since it is usually a major faux pas to wear outdoor shoes in the gym, a thin tarp is rolled over the floor. Next, rows of chairs are set up for the graduating students and visiting parents. This is where it gets a little absurd. It is not enough for the rows to look generally straight and in order, but rather, they are measured out to the exact centimeter. The distance of the two end chairs of the front row is measured from the front of the gym to ensure that the rows are perfectly perpendicular to the stage. Furthermore, there is exactly 60 centimeters between each row and the perfect and inarguable straightness of each row is set up by lining up a measuring tape from one end to the other. There is exactly 16 centimeters between each chair. In fact, the location of each and every object in the gym is mapped out and is checked and rechecked several times with a measuring tape.

The Rehearsal (予行練習)

Students practice for the graduation ceremony for about a week. The graduating students at my school put in a total of eight practice hours and three rehearsal hours before the day of the big event. The first and second year students practiced for a total of three hours, separate from the graduating students and also attended the final rehearsal. This does not include the various meetings held in each homeroom or the singing practice held after school. Nor does it take into account the hours of staff meetings that took place in the month before, the vast quantity of documents produced and photocopied or the myriad of discussions and debates leading up to the big day.

The practice (練習) for the graduating students is broken down into the following: practicing how to walk into and exit the gym (入退場), practicing how to receive the diploma (証書授与), and singing practice. During this time, the students also repeatedly practice standing up and sitting down in perfect unison, clapping and the perfect bow. They are grilled on posture and appropriate hair styles. They even get a five minute lecture on the way to place their hands in their laps during the ceremony; boys are not allowed to cross their hands, but must sit with their fingers gently curled under their hands. Girls are permitted to sit with their hands folded, but they are not allowed to interlace their fingers. For the ceremony the students wear their usual uniforms, and it goes without saying, that these must be perfect and adornments of any kind (earrings, makeup, hair spray) are strictly prohibited.

The rehearsal is not a quick run through, it is a full run of the event with all the glory. The teachers patrol the gym like drill masters and bark out orders at the students. Stand up straighter! Keep your hands taut! Look forward! Your feet are not positioned correctly! Clap louder! One teacher with a stopwatch marks down the exact timing of each part of the ceremony, down to the second. At the end, all the teachers have a quick meeting to decide what needs to be improved, sped up or slowed down.

The last hour is spent tweaking and perfecting the ceremony down to the smallest detail. This year at my school, the teachers were not satisfied with the way the students stood up in unison, nor were they pleased by the angle of the collective bow of respect. To remedy this, the entire school stood up, bowed and sat down no less than a dozen times. Again, teachers who are usually kind and gentle walked up and down the aisles, hissing commands and reprimands at the small and fearful students.

The Ceremony (卒業式)

The day of the ceremony is an exciting and tense one. The students come to school looking their best and the teachers don formal attire. Everyone is nervous and excited, but once the ceremony gets under way, all the practice and rehearsal ensures that everything and everyone falls into place. Long speeches are made by the principal, the superintendent of the Board of Education, the Town Mayor and the President of the PTA. Speeches are also made by a representative of the graduating class and a representative of the younger grades. As each speaker ascends the stages, all of the graduating class must stand up, in perfect unison and bow in perfect unison. They do this again at the end of each speech during the recitation of the date (which is stated at the end of any and every speech in Japan).

Following the speeches, the younger students sing a farewell song to the graduates and the graduates sing a farewell song to everyone in the gym. This is the last time that they will function as a group before going their separate ways to different high schools and, hence, this is the proper time to shed a few tears. And everyone gets in on it. In between the first and second course of the song, there was about fifteen seconds of piano only, but the sound of the music was almost completely drowned out by the sobs that members of the graduating class failed to muffle. Within seconds it turned everyone weepy and when I looked over to see the principal and nearly everyone of the VIPs wiping at their eyes that I realized that I too was not immune.

The lengthy ceremony was so formal, that I felt terrified to move, lest I make any noise. I desperately wanted to take some pictures and video footage of the madness I was witnessing, but I had to give myself a pep talk to get myself to stand up. In a gym of over 650 people, the only person moving about, was the cameraman and even he seemed awkward. The students sat stiff as boards and I could only imagine what they were thinking (don't move don't move don't move). They had spent so much time and energy preparing for this moment, yet I could see it was so stressful and overwhelming for them. I was the only one to recognize the irony of the school band playing Frank Sinatra's My Way as the graduating students left the gym.

Following the ceremony, which at my school ran a total of two hours, the students return to their homerooms, where they collect their diplomas, sign each others' yearbooks and take pictures. After a final session of group tear shedding, they take their final and most glorious walk through the school. The students of the other classes line up along the predetermined path and say good-bye to their older friends one last time. Finally, and even though they are officially finished and allowed to go home, the students usually spend several hours in front of the school taking more pictures, collecting more signatures and reminiscing about their good times together.

How to collect your diploma

On the two occasions when I collected a diploma, the instructions for the process were quite simple: walk up to principal or dean and get your diploma. At my high school graduation I think there was a hand shake and at my university graduation, I had kneel down so that the Dean could do something like touch my shoulder with a Very Important Stick (I forget). In Japan, on the other hand, walking up to the principal and getting your diploma is not as simple as that. It's not a matter of just walking up and getting it and being somewhat elegant and graceful about it; its a fully choreographed performance. Every move, every action is strictly outlined and rehearsed. I give you the exact steps as follows, just so you get an idea of just how strict and anal the Japanese can be.

  1. Student stands up (in order of the usual role call for his or her homeroom) and walks towards the stage, stopping at the bottom of the steps leading up to the stage.
  2. When the students name is called out by the homeroom teacher, they acknowedge this with a lound "hai" and slowly walk up the steps.
  3. At the top, they must stop, feet together, before taking one step towards the podium where the principal is standing.
  4. After a one second pause, they must deeply bow to the principal.
  5. After they have completed their bow, the principal holds out the diploma, which unlike in the West is not rolled.
  6. The student first lifts their left arm towards the diploma to gently take the left, bottom corner.
  7. The student then lifts their right arm to take the opposite corner.
  8. In one swift motion, the students retrieves the diploma by bending both arms towards their body.
  9. While making certain that the diploma remains perpendicular to the floor, they look the principal in the eyes before bowing deeply one more time.
  10. The next step is an incredible feat of coordination, style and skill. The student turns on their heal 90 degrees (the direction is different for the boys and for the girls who sit on opposite sides of the gym and walk off opposite sides of the stage). While they are turning, they must quickly and gracefully fold the diploma over and hold it in the hand facing outwards.
  11. When reaching the side of the stage, the student must turn around to face the flag hanging at the back of the stage and bow deeply one last time.
  12. The students walks off the stage and places their diploma on a table with the others. The diplomas are distributed in the classrooms after the end of the ceremony.
  13. Student bows to the principal and the teachers before returning to their seat.

When I get a chance to upload the pictures and the video that I took of the grad ceremony at my school, I will post the details here.

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