Japan is a country of ceremony, form and ritual – and beginnings and endings. Everything from meals to school lessons to meetings have a formal opening and closing.
Starting and leaving school is no different. At the end of last term I went to the 6th Grade Okurikai (sending off ceremony) at my son’s school. All families were expected to attend, even if your child was in a different grade. With only 8 students in the class (and the largest year group in the school) I imagine the numbers needed to be made up but, more than that, the school has a strong sense of place in the community so many locals attend.
The event was over 3 hours long; fellow students performed plays about them, the teachers followed by the parents sang songs and read personal messages to each child. The 6th graders then sang and played several tunes, ending with powerful taiko drumming .
They left the hall to a final round of applause through an arch of flowers festooned with party poppers. At times it was intense, the students were asked to face the audience and say thank you to the parents and locals who’d attended, virtually all were sobbing, parents and members of the audience were also in tears…
Then, of course, they had a graduation ceremony as well. I attended the graduation at one of the schools I worked at. It was another formal and emotional affair with messages from students to their parents and vice versa, then the remaining children thanked them for their help and the many shared experiences, again lots of tears.
You might think this was too much. In some ways I do, but with so many aspects of Japanese life, milestones are marked with much care and attention. I sometimes wonder if these formal ceremonies provide an acceptable space for the often reticent Japanese to express their feelings and be emotional, when finished it is back to normal.
Starting school is equally important, new pupils dress up and attend an opening ceremony with their parents. Traditionally women would wear kimonos, but today suits are more common.
My daughter had her elementary school entrance ceremony last week. She is one of just 3 pupils in the first grade, combined with the 7 students starting Junior High (the two schools are combined) the event was for just 10 children. I counted over 30 local dignitaries and heads of organisations in attendance including the mayor of Ayabe. There were even 10 or so representatives from the construction company that recently completed work at the school.
It went on for an hour and a half, with many speeches. My daughter was required to stand, bow and sit numerous times throughout. Needless to say she didn’t enjoy the actual ceremony that much. But she did love the preparation, the dressing up and donning her yellow school cap and landoseru , the iconic leather rucksack used by Japanese elementary children.
I remember bits of my first day of school but don’t really remember leaving primary school at all. I bet, however, these kids will never forget the beginning and ending of their school.