[From March Issue 2013]
At the end of the calendar year and in March, new pocketbooks are displayed in the stationery sections of book stores and in stationery stores. There are two types of pocketbook: some begin from January and others begin from April. This is because there are two ways of thinking about the year: one is the “calendar year” which runs from January to December, and the other is the “fiscal year” which runs from April to March.
In Japan, many events in government offices, companies, and schools are timetabled according to the “fiscal year.” It appears that the reason why life in Japan is organized around the fiscal year is related to the fact that the school year begins in April, and ends in March the next year. This timetable effects society at large, so that things like personnel transfers in companies take place according to the new fiscal year. These changes occur across the country. Students also move to a new district in order to enter their educational institution of choice.
There are a variety of events related to ushering in the new fiscal year, but for any Japanese person, graduating after completing their studies is an important milestone. You might even say that graduation ceremonies are the most important event of the season for all educational facilities from nursery schools, to kindergartens, elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, vocational schools, universities, and graduate schools. Most of these ceremonies take place in February or March.
Many graduation ceremonies start with an opening address, and continue with everyone singing the national anthem, “Kimigayo.” The program also includes presentations of diplomas, a speech by the school principal, congratulatory speeches by illustrious guests such as the mayor, speeches by current students and graduating students and the presentation of graduation gifts. Students might sing “Hotaru no Hikari” or their school anthem before the closing address. Sometimes, the entire graduating class may recite “chikai no kotoba” (a graduation oath) or “kadode no kotoba” (parting words). These words are intended to show junior pupils, teacher and parents, their determination to succeed in the next stage of their lives.
Traditionally, “Hotaru no Hikari” and “Aogeba Toutoshi” are sung by a chorus. The melody of “Hotaru no Hikari” is the same as the Scottish folk song, “Auld Lang Syne.” In the latter half of the 19th century, Scottish teachers of technology sang the song when they were returning to their country, and thus the tune became known in Japan as a farewell song. The lyrics to “Aogeba Toutoshi” (Respecting Teachers) express gratitude to teachers for their care.
A recent standard song is “Tabidachi no Hi ni” (On the Day of Departure). This song was composed for a graduation ceremony by the principle and music teacher of a junior high school in Saitama Prefecture, but has become popular nationwide. Other schools use suitable J-pop songs that take the theme of “parting and friendship.” For many Japanese, graduation ceremonies are not just a formality, but are sad occasions signaling the fact that they’ll soon be leaving behind special friends and memories. This is why many attendees burst into tears. They cry even harder because they are overwhelmed by wonderful memories.
NAGATA Momoko, of Aichi Prefecture, who graduated high school last year, reflects on her own graduation ceremony, “In order to make the ceremony even better, we spend a lot of time practicing. During this time, we practice the songs the most. Before the actual ceremony, we practice our school anthem, ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ and ‘Aogeba Toutoshi’ over and over again. By practicing a lot, when it comes to finally singing the song at the ceremony, our sense that ‘this is the last time we’ll sing this’ is heightened and we can’t help but tear up.”
Graduation ceremonies are not only memorable for the graduating student, but also for the parent. But the way parents behave has changed dramatically compared to previous generations. ASHIDA Miri of Yamagata Prefecture, who is also the mother of two children says, “At the ceremony I am moved to tears by the parting words and expressions of thanks. But when I see fathers frantically recording their child during the ceremony on video, I think, ‘Isn’t it a waste not to see your grown child with your own eyes?’”
SAWAE Misa of Niigata Prefecture, who is also a mother of two, says, “It’s more common now for both parents to attend the ceremony. Only about two or three mothers wear kimono, with the rest in western clothes; a big difference from when I was a child. When the diplomas are presented, rather than turning their backs to us, children receive the diploma in a way that allows the parents to see their expression. In the old days this didn’t happen.”
While uniforms are worn by students at the majority of junior high and high schools, at university, students typically wear their own clothes, so for graduation ceremonies, most women dress in a hakama. Hakama were originally worn by teachers of women’s schools from the Meiji to Taisho eras (the second half of the 19th century to the early half of the 20th century), but gradually the practice spread to students. However, in modern times, it is considered to be a special outfit worn only at graduation.
Most wear rented hakama. This is because there are hardly any other occasions for which it can be worn. SAITO Yasuko of Saitama Prefecture, who is an expert kimono dresser, says, “Dressing one person takes around fifteen minutes. Because they are at an age in which fashion is important, many want to express their personality through color choice and accessories. No matter who they are, I get the sense that they’re full of hope for the bright future that awaits them after graduation.”
Graduation day is the perfect opportunity to confess your love for someone you’ve had a crush on for a long time. At mixed sex schools, there’s a long tradition of boys giving away the second button down from their school jacket as a keepsake to girls. Because the second button is closest to the heart, this is probably signifies “giving one’s heart away.” For this reason girls descend on popular boys, vying to get their buttons.
One high school has a tradition called “hakusen nagashi” (floating white line) in which the white piping sewn onto a boy’s school cap is attached to the scarf of a girl’s sailor uniform and floated down the river in front of the school. This tradition has been going for over 70 years and takes place after the graduation ceremony at Gifu Prefectural Hida High School in Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture. A TV drama was inspired by this tradition.
The word “graduation” in Japanese, is not only used in reference to education, but also to express the fact that many other kinds of things are “finished.” On the other hand, it is said the word “graduation” includes the nuance of the word “commencement” in USA. It seems that many Japanese feel that milestones in life are reached during events, such as graduation, that take place at the end of the fiscal year.
Most schools hold graduation ceremonies at the end of March, which is around the same time the cherry trees on Honshu Island begin to bud. These buds swell little by little, and, at the beginning of April the cherry trees planted around school grounds are in full bloom by the time entrance ceremonies are held and the new school term begins. Therefore, for many Japanese people, cherry blossoms are often symbolic of being promoted, going up a grade, entering a school, or entering the world as an adult member of society.
Text: ITO Koichi