Thursday, March 02, 2006

Liberty

Wednesday, March 1st was graduation day in Japan. At 10:00 in the morning, every 3rd year high school student in the country graduated. Maureen was able to arrange going to the ceremony at Tomakomai Nishi and invited me to join her.

At the school's entrance, we were warmly welcomed by a smiling man in a dark business suit and white sneakers. In fact, nearly all of the staff was wearing either sneakers or sandals with their suits and dresses, even on graduation day. Everyone wears their dress shoes to work, then changes at the entrance into more comfortable indoor shoes. Only the school's principal, who handed out diplomas wearing a tuxedo jacket with tails, sported shiny black wingtips.

Upstairs, students were moving about the halls under a festive air, girls walking arm in arm and boys smiling and congratulating each other. All of them wore their school uniforms, black sailor suits with short skirts for the girls (bare legs, even with snow outside), and high, brass buttoned black jackets and trousers for the boys, a style inspired by 19th century Persian military dress and virtually unchanged since then. Except for the shoes. Both genders wore the same white Asics sneakers that they wear everyday once inside the school building. Only the single red rose pinned on their chests distinguished the matriculating class from the younger students.

One of the girls who we had both met before spotted us and came running up.

"Thank you so much for coming," she beamed.

"Congratulations! Are you excited?" we asked.

"Yes, yes!" she nodded.

"And a little sad, too?" Maureen wondered.

"Sad? No, I'm not sad at all. Today I gain liberty, freedom."

The temperature of our reception dropped a few degrees from there. We next met with one of the English teachers that Maureen assists, a nervous young woman who seemed to have no idea what to do with me.

"We could sit with the teachers," she said to Maureen, "but he," pointing to me as if was an object rather than the a person, "is not a teacher." I took this to mean, "unfortunately, the gymnasium does not have a hole big enough for him to crawl into, so I'll have to think of something else to do with him." The looks I got from her and the other teachers had me wishing that they did have a hole, or at least that I could become invisible for the next couple hours.

In the end, we sat with the teachers. I shared my feelings with Mo, who helped put the situation in perspective.

"They don't know what to do with you. We're the exceptions here, and they'll just have to deal with it."

The band started playing promptly at 9:50. The graduating students entered by homeroom class, each class led by its teacher. Students keep the same homeroom teacher (who also serves as advisor and mentor) for all three years of high school. It's a good system when everyone gets along, but extremely trying when personalities do not mesh well. The band finished playing at the same instant the last student arrived at his seat. All students, both graduating and non, sat in straight-backed wooden chairs, while teachers and visits had padded folding chairs.

Awarding of diplomas began immediately. Each homeroom teacher went to the microphone for his or her class and read each name. The student, up on stage, responded with "Hai!", then approached the podium, bowed to the principal who bowed back and presented the diploma, holding it out with two hands. The student took it with both hands, then shook right hands with the principal, stepped back, exchanged bows, and returned to his or her seat as the next name was read. The audience applauded for the first student, then remained silent. A few students varied the pitch of their "Hai's" enough to get a laugh from the student body, and the biggest laugh of all came when one spiky-haired boys answered "Yes!" at the reading of his name. He got a few more laughs when he struck a double-hands-the-shape-six-shooters pose at the end of the stage.

As the last student received his diploma, the principal stopped and read the contents of the diploma, then the student returned to his seat like everyone else. No one applauded after the last name was read. Three of the older male faculty gave short speeches, then the student body president (a second-year student) gave the farewell address to the third years. One girl was award a certificate for perfect attendance, and one graduating student made a short speech. The band played "Auld Lang Sine," then all the first and second year students lined up along the center aisle.

The tension seemed to flow out of the room and I could feel everyone breath a collective exhale. I was ready for tossing of caps, shouts of jubilation, raucous applause and all the celebration I associate with the American idea of gaining liberty. What I got was a pop song played at medium volume over the PA system with the audience reservedly clapping in time while the graduates filed out, quietly shaking hands and accepting congrats from their classmates.

When they had gone, the band returned to their seats, everyone sat, then got back up and filed ordely out, the students taking their wooden straight-backed chairs with them. Back in the teachers' office, graduates came in two or three at time with yearbooks for their teachers to sing (price: Y7000 each) and bearing gifts for their homeroom teachers -- graduates in Japan give gifts instead of receiving them. They left the building slowly, to go off and have lunch and go on with their days while the first and second year students returned to their classes.

The student that Maureen and I had spoken with earlier returned, and Maureen gave her the brownies she had baked for her the night before. She thanked us again, and told us about her plans to go to Tokyo and working a restaurant/bar. College was not part of the picture for her. Later that night she would attend her weekly English class -- not a graduation party.

Afterwards, we went to lunch with another of the teachers Maureen works with. Hiromi Goto and her husband Fuyuki are an incredibly well-traveled couple whose English is first-rate and whose hospitality is limitless. On the way to lunch, we asked Hiromi what the other students would do now that exams were over and the graduates were gone.

"Break doesn't start for three more weeks," she explained.

"But now they don't get tested on anything else, right?" Maureen asked. "You're just teaching to teach?"

"Yes, just teaching to teach them, to entertain them, to occupy them."

"What did you think of a Japanese graduation?" she asked us.

"Very quiet," was all we could think to respond.

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