The Magic of the Sotsugyoushiki

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Photo by Héctor García

As we close out the month of March, the school year finally draws to a close. For many English teachers this can be a turbulent time. Uncertainty over next year’s placement means that many of us revert to the default option of saying goodbye to our students in case we get transferred and don’t see them next year. To be fair, our Japanese colleagues also face a similar instability at this time of year, as many of them will also be transferred, often not knowing the destination until mere days before the new term is to begin.

However, there is one group of students we can be sure we will not see again, that is this year’s graduates. The class of 2015.

For elementary school 6th graders and junior high school 3rd graders, the next couple of weeks is their time to shine. All across Japan, throughout mid to late March, schools will be holding their graduation ceremony or Sotsugyoushiki, as it is pronounced in Japanese.

Teaching at multiple schools as I, and indeed most ALTs in Japan do, it can at times be tricky to find the time in the schedule to attend these ceremonies. It is usually customary that all elementary schools in a particular district will hold their ceremonies on the same day, as will junior high schools on a different day. Hence, an ALT can attend, at most, two of his schools’ ceremonies.

In Scotland, when I was growing up we didn’t even have such ceremonies. In my case I was grateful just to survive school in those days! So, when I arrived in Japan and witnessed one of these ceremonies in all their pomp and sophistication I have to admit I was surprised.

The sotsugyoushiki is a big deal for these schools, and teachers and students alike will spend weeks, even months ahead of time planning and practicing to ensure a perfect ceremony. Never have I seen a school hall so elaborately decorated and such a veneer of glamour given to these often grey and uninspiring halls.

graduation-party-1

The parents and other attendees also get in on the act. The men will wear their finest suits, and the ladies can often be seen wearing their best kimono. This year I’m even joining in the fun. My school asked me: what do you wear in Scotland for such ceremonies?

They were, to say the least, somewhat surprised when I showed them my kilt! But fair play to my schools, they played along and the students and parents all loved having their photo taken with their eccentric English teacher and his tartan “skirt”.

So once we are all seated and the preparations finalized, how does the actual ceremony proceed?

Well, firstly the ceremony will usually open with an address from the school principal (Koucho Sensei). The Koucho will usually speak for about 5 minutes or so, and the speech will be very formal in nature. There will then be the flag raising ceremony and obligatory singing of the national anthem. Thankfully, unlike our Japanese colleagues, we are not obligated to sing along.

A representative of the students will then give a speech, as will the head of the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA). The Koucho will then formally introduce all the visiting dignitaries, of which there will be several. These may include principals or vice principals from other schools, local councilors and other city officials as well as other local community leaders. On occasion, the ALT may also be invited to address the students. Thankfully I haven’t been asked to do that this year, and my students will be spared my atrocious Japanese pronunciation.

Once the speeches and other formalities are out of the way, we then move on to the ceremony itself. The schools own orchestra will play some well-rehearsed tunes and the students will sing songs they have chosen for the ceremony.

Next, each of the graduating students will individually be called to the stage where they will received a formal graduation certificate from their principal. Depending on the number of graduating classes in that school this part of the ceremony can take anything from 10 minutes to more than half an hour. The students will acknowledge the dedication and hard work of their homeroom teachers. The teachers will be addressed by the students and then presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Many a homeroom teacher can get a bit tearful at this point.

Once this is completed everyone in the hall will stand and applaud as a final musical number is played by the orchestra and the students head out, in order. After everyone has gathered outside, photos are taken, final goodbyes are said and then all the teachers and current students will form a guard of honour for the departing students as they depart the school grounds for the last time, to triumphant applause.

The sotsugyoushiki is one of the most joyous occasions a public school teacher in Japan can ever experience. Although it is tinged with sadness as we say goodbye to our students, I also find my heart filled with pride, knowing that I have in some small part helped these fine young people take their first tentative steps into the real world.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • John Wesley says:

    My son just graduated from kindergarten, and it was very surprising to me that they would hold such a ceremony for that level of education. It was a joyous, but somber event, and long! There was a farewell, after the graduation ceremony. Four teachers were leaving to become mothers, which I thought was the sole reason for all the tears, but a co-worker told me that school graduations, here in Japan, tend to be somewhat somber, compared to her experience in the U.S.
    Did you notice any sadness, at the graduations you attended?

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      I have experienced quite a bit of sadness at some of these ceremonies. Its usually more prevalent at junior high than elementary and ive never attended a kindergarten ceremony so i can’t really comment on that.
      In junior high in particular, the homeroom teachers often become like surrogate parents to the kids and a deep bond between them is formed. In many cases these teachers will look after the same group of kids for the full 3 years they are in school. Saying a final goodbye is like losing a family member to them.
      Theres also the issue of teacher transfers. In japanese public schools most teachers are transferred every 3 years or so. I had a friend who was being transferred and so for her it was doubly sad as she was not only saying goodbye to the students she had seen every day for 3 years, but also the school she had worked in for 4 years.
      She was quite emotional come graduation day.

  • Mikey says:

    Great post man! You guys dont have any grad ceremonies in Scotland? The Japanese ones are similar to the Aussie ones I went to …

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks Mikey, Unfortunately we didn’t have any such ceremonies at my high school. Or perhaps I just wasn’t invited 🙂

  • skaizun says:

    Thank you for this peek into Japanese society!

  • 8675309 says:

    The graduation attire for the girls is not called a “kimono”. It is called ‘hakama’ and is a special-purpose type of yukata worn especially for graduation ceremonies.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for the input, however the “kimono” i was refering to was that worn by the parents in attendance, not the students themselves.

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