The Class of Heisei 20 Graduates
I’m sorry I haven’t written in two months! For Lent, I’m reading the Gospels in Japanese and praying the Rosary in Spanish. I’ve also been reading the news in Spanish for half an hour a day to get my fluency back, but I’ll have to devote that time to studying Chinese instead because I’m planning to take a trip with another teacher to Henan during the first week of May. I have also been running four times a week, doing my own cooking and cleaning, juggling meal invitations, getting into classical music, writing college friends, doing my taxes (I paid zero!), swinging burning bales of hay around myself (at a festival), writing essays for JET Program contests, finally getting around to some must-see locations around the prefecture, collecting school materials from my students to send to poor students in Zimbabwe, following the news in America, which is way more dramatic than it used to be…well, there’s been a lot to do, but this paragraph is already looking more like a square than a rectangle so I’ll double-punch the enter key and tell you about the real reason I’ve been busy: the end of the school year.
The Japanese academic and fiscal calendar runs from April 1 to March 31. 2008 and the just-concluded academic year are both referred to as Heisei 20, the 20th year of the reign of Emperor Akihito, called Heisei (“peace everywhere”). The hinge of the calendar is also cherry blossom season, making for dramatic hellos and goodbyes. Sakura mark the beginning of spring, and because they only bloom for a couple weeks, they symbolize transience. Entire parks blossomed and filled up with people taking picnics and pictures. “Hanami,” or “looking at flowers,” is one of the year’s most anticipated leisure activities. I’d been preparing for this season since I arrived, but the forests of white and pink still made a deep impression on my imagination. So did the people, so childlike before the flowers. I spent whole days traversing city parks this week. My normal environment changed a lot, too. In unexpected parking lots and stretches of country road, trees that seemed plain revealed their true colors. This week was the tail end of the season; petals rained to earth, leaving the streets covered in blossoms. It looks like snow in summer. I can see the shape of the wind in the way it carries the petals them hither and yon.
This year, the trees blossomed on the day of the junior high school graduation ceremony, inspiring the chair of the PTA to break into song at the end of his speech the students. He lustily belted out Moriyama Naotaro’s “Sakura,” a famous goodbye song which I had actually sung in class to sixth graders I won’t see again as a surprise going-away present. Unfortunately, the PTA chief didn’t sing as well as Naotaro, so the kids, instead of being moved, snickered at the arch-awkwardness of the scene.
Unexpected warbling aside, Japanese graduation is an impressive affair. The passing of time is very important in Japanese culture, and saying goodbye to departing students is pivotal. Graduation is more of a farewell than it is a celebration here. All the school’s students have to come, and many of them cry. The ceremony follows the same form at every school and every level, be it Oama Elementary School or Tokyo Metropolitan International High School. The ceremony is held in the same auditorium as other school ceremonies, and the students and teachers have decorated and cleaned it beforehand. The Japanese flag hangs behind the podium. The graduating class sits front and center, flanked by the teachers of the school on one side and special guests (administrators, business leaders, former teachers, and the like) on the other. Behind the graduating students are the remaining students of the school, who are flanked by the parents of the graduates. Teachers and guests wear suits, dresses, kimonos, and such; the students wear their regular uniforms.
The graduates enter the building to the applause of everyone. The vice principal bows to the teachers (who return the favor, as any polite person would), walks to the stage, bows to the Japanese flag, bows to the students, and says the ceremony is officially beginning. Everyone sings the national anthem, which is slightly haunting since it’s in C major but its tonal center is D (Dorian mode, right?) The students are then given their diplomas, which is the end of matters in America but only the beginning here. Classical songs everyone knows are looped: my school’s mix was “Canon in D,” “Air,” and “Clair de Lune.” Homeroom teachers call their students’ names in order, first the boys and then the girls. The student whose name is called yells “Hai!” in response and walks in front of the principal at the front podium. At the same time, the next student takes his place on the far side of the stage (on deck), the third just off stage (in the hole), both of them standing straight and facing the crowd like palace guards. The relevant student bows. The assistant teacher for that age group takes the diplomas from a sleek black tray and hands them to the principal, who reads the name, says congratulations, turns the certificate around offers it to the student, who takes it gently because it is a sacred thing, one hand grasping the left edge and then one hand the right (or right and then left – the students decide which direction to take, but they all do it the same way), then drawing it to his chest. The principal and student bow to each other. The next student’s name is called, but the student who just received his diploma, instead of walking off stage, takes one step to the side. When the following student arrives at the podium, both students bow to the principal together, and –then– the first goes off stage as the second receives his diploma. The first student to receive a diploma and the last must bow to their fellow graduating students on both sides. When everyone from a homeroom is finished, the teacher announces how many boys, girls, and total students graduated. The last homeroom teacher includes the count for the entire graduating class.
After the diplomas are passed, messages of congratulations and inspiration are given. The first speaker is the principal, followed by representatives of the board of education, the city, the PTA, and the guests. Each one repeats the bowing routine the vice principal demonstrated when he opened the ceremony. The students stand and bow in sync with him, and sit only after he asks them to. The guests are introduced in order of status, and each puts in a few words of his own. The Japanese is very formal, so it’s better to be polite than creative. Whenever someone says “o-sotsugyou shite omedetou gozaimasu,” or “congratulations on graduating,” he bows, and all the students bow to him in return. This is the first thing that everyone says, so over the course of the ceremony the students bow about a hundred times.
Now that all the adults have gotten their words in, it’s the students’ turn. The graduating class president and vice president give a speech about all the great things they did at school and how thankful they are to the teachers. Then the incoming class president and vice president give a speech about all the great things the graduating students did for them, and how much they’ll be missed. At elementary school, there are no class presidents, so each speech is split up among several students, with each one memorizing a line or two.
Then the students sing to each other. The class choir is a standard of Japanese school culture. Choir songs are the main pieces students practice in their music classes; they even compete with each other and other schools during the culture festival. Being the conductor and the piano player are high honors for students. The best class choirs in the country get on national television. (Here’s this year’s top junior high school.) First, the students who are remaining at the school sing a song about their love for the graduating students. Then the graduating students sing two songs wishing goodbye to everyone and expressing their high hopes for the future. During instrumentals of these songs, the students can shout prepared words of strong emotion, like thanks or happiness or sadness. If you were there, you’d be crying by now, right?
Everyone sings the school song one last time. The vice principal officially ends the ceremony. Then, if the school has the equipment, a memory-montage style video is shown, showing the kids as they grew up, at the big festivals like sports and culture day, doing fun activities, goofing off with their friends, and so on. Note that this video is shown after the ceremony has officially ended, since videos were only invented recently and thus weren’t part of the traditional ceremony. Finally, the students leave the building to applause as a more contemporary, upbeat song plays. Graduating students then return to their homerooms and have a final class in which both the students and the teacher let out everything they want to say before they separate, then sign each other’s yearbooks and take pictures.
My predecessor, who is studying Japanese in Kyoto, came back from spring break early in order to attend the junior high school ceremony as a guest. I asked him to come because the graduates are more his kids than mine. He had them two whole years, and because of their English classes were often on my elementary school days I didn’t see them as much as I saw the others. The kids and teachers were surprised and happy to see him! He stayed at my home two of three nights. On the second night, we went out to dinner with his friends, and then when we got home he had other friends over to our house for an after-party. They stayed until 2 AM when I had elementary school and a demonstration class in front of the seventh graders’ parents the next day. His friends were Japanese, though, and I was fine in class the next day, so all is forgiven. My predecessor is studying to be a translator, so his Japanese is very good, and unusually laid-back and dialect-heavy.
What’s next for my ninth graders? To begin with, they’re splitting up between around fifteen different schools. Matriculation to high school in Japan is similar to college matriculation in America. It’s a privilege, not a right, and schools can draw from everywhere, not just their own districts. American high schools shoot for well-roundedness, but Japanese high schools are very diverse: I’ve heard of curricula based on things like foreign language, electricity, cooking, management, even sports. However, entrance standards are completely different from America. The American admission boards pick a pre-determined number of students that have the best balance of twenty to thirty characteristics, such as grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, special achievements, race, essays, interviews, one’s hometown, and the like. Japanese high schools and universities care about only one thing: whether you can pass their entrance examination. Schools use scholarships and advertising to draw the kind of kids they want (for example, one of my students is getting a track scholarship for the high school with the strongest team), but even their targeted students must pass the test. A student typically gets two chances and pays about $30 each time.
This has a huge effect on education in the country. For eight years, school is fairly well-rounded. Then the ninth graders (at least my school) are required to quit their extracurricular activities after summer vacation, which is a third of the way through the school year, so that they have time to study for the tests in January and February. Many classes for the ninth graders are simply study hall. The English sections of the exams test vocabulary, grammar, and reading comprehension rather than speaking ability, and we have to structure our entire junior high school curriculum around helping the kids pass the tests, so most graduate with little confidence they can speak English. The Japanese administrators consider the system a leveler, because everyone is taking the same tests, but because some kids can afford better cram schools than others, and American admissions boards are always striving to make their decisions fairer, I don’t think it’s necessarily more equitable. It does make raw academic ability far more important than anything else.
Most students can get into high school (this year, all my ninth graders did), but there are a few who can’t. This is partially because schools never, ever hold back a student an extra year, even if he gets 0’s on all his tests or never shows up to school. We had a couple of the former in seventh and eighth grade and one of the latter in ninth grade. I only saw the truant student at the graduation ceremony, but he’s going to high school anyway because he managed to pass an entrance exam. (The graduation was a little awkward for him. He was like a new kid who’d just moved into the school.) As for the extremely bad students, it’s enough for the teachers if they try to take part in student life because Japanese school is really about teaching proper behavior. The stated reason no one gets held back is that it’s important for everyone’s social development to keep age groups together. The unstated reason is that it’s better to get non-functional students through the system as quickly as possible so as to not sap resources from the good kids. My extremely low-ability students, instead of going to high school, will go into the work force. These youths get in disproportionate amounts of trouble based on state crime records, but society is willing to bear the cost in order to have fewer problem students at high schools. Fifteen year olds have to become adults in plenty of countries, anyway.
My junior high school graduation was my first. I watched the practice ceremony for another elementary school while I was teaching there one day. My third, on my birthday, was my favorite. I was invited to Oama Higashi, which is my smallest elementary school and my best. Forty years ago, the school had about one hundred eighty students; now, there are less than forty. The school needs to stay excellent in order to stay open so the teachers work hard. Because the students get so much attention in their small classes, they’re more disciplined, happier, and better educated than the other students in town. I am so happy whenever I come here. I get my ideas here for lessons to teach at my other elementary schools. I helped with my first school performance here: under the guidance of their homeroom teacher, the fourth graders introduced themselves, interviewed other teachers and parents, taught the names of the months, and sang “Dancing Queen” all in English! I had my first “research class” with this same group. In a research class, the teacher presents a carefully-planned lesson to both the students and the other teachers at the school (and once or twice a year, to teachers from several different schools). Afterwards the teachers get together and discuss what worked about the lesson and what didn’t. I missed that discussion because I had classes back at the junior high, but I’m pretty sure we did well on that, too. Oama Higashi even gave me a birthday present: a nice hand towel! (Towels are the ultimate safe presents here.)
Anyway, I get along very well with this school, and especially with this year’s graduate. There was one sixth grader this year. His name is Saiki, and he’s an autistic student who receives special education from a personal aide, just like my youngest brother. He became huge when he hit puberty last year, so his aide had to do a lot of wrestling! Saiki sat in with my fourth grade class during the year (the same precocious group doing all the English activities). He laughed and waved and hugged me a lot, and sometimes he sprayed spit everywhere trying to pronounce F’s and P’s and SH’s. He wasn’t so functional, but he was happy. I played with him at recess and ate lunch with him sometimes. He liked digging into both sand and food. In our last class together, I sang him “Sakura,” and we danced around, and he licked my face. His aide taped my performance and showed it at the school presentation, in front of all the teachers and parents, as an example of something great Saiki experienced at school.
At such a small school, an autistic child is going to be a huge part of everyone’s life. The kids were reminded daily that he’s just as much of a person as everyone else. So the school threw the same graduation extravaganza for him that they would for anyone else. It took hours of repetition to get him to sit, stand, and bow at the correct times, and even then there was a lot of suspense about whether or not he’d do the correct thing. He didn’t always, but he did enough of the time that you could tell the teachers tried. He got up and wandered around during the speeches because he couldn’t sit still.
All the speeches, rather than being addressed to students in general, called on him by name. I was a guest. I said “o-sotsugyou shite omedetou gozaimasu,” told Saiki class with him was fun, thanked him for his big smile and asked him to always smile like that. When the remaining students gave their speeches about what Saiki had done for them, the language was fresh and genuine. Since he’s going to a special school rather than the local junior high, it really was “goodbye” for them after many years together.
Saiki can’t sing, but he loves music, and whenever he hears it he waves his arms like a conductor. He has a snare drum pad. The kids sang a couple songs they’d performed with Saiki at past events, like Begin’s “Sanshin no Hana,” and he tapped the snare drum in tune for the first half, then among the students looking at all of them and conducting. The last piece was a sweet children’s tune about the sun coming out after a rainy day, and it came with set motions and a dance. The principal and vice principal came down from their seats of honor and danced with the kids to set an example for Saiki, who half-followed along…well, quarter-followed along. The hopefulness of the music and the humility of the teachers brought me to tears.
After the official ending came the video. Saiki’s aide, Mr. Mukozaka, narrated his journey through elementary school, with pictures to follow along. After that, Mr. Mukozaka, holding Saiki, thanked all the teachers who had worked with him, since Saiki could not express these thoughts himself. Mr. Mukozaka, spoke in the first person, as if he –were– Saiki. “Mrs. Gotoh, thank you for being my aide for third and fourth grade. You have been so kind to me…Mrs. Ide, you were always strict with me, but you wanted only the best, and I learned a lot from you…Mr. James, thanks to you I had a lot of fun in English class, and I grew to love English.” Saiki’s face was blank, but Mr. Mukozaka was crying. He is not explicitly a special education teacher; he also has a license for regular elementary school. He had given the last two years of his life to one boy, and a fairly difficult one to handle, but instead of getting tired of the work, he came to love the boy more and more. Saiki got sick once, and Mr. Mukozaka took care of a lot of errands that were piling up, but it seemed like he was wandering around with a lost look on his face.
After this speech, Saiki’s father spoke on behalf of his family. With cracks in his voice, he thanked everyone for putting together such a complete graduation ceremony for his son, and he apologized for all the trouble his boy had caused over the years. Then Saiki left to applause from everyone while the fifth graders played “March 9th,” a song I loved so much in college that I memorized the words before I even understood what they meant and played it on the guitar. This ceremony expressed the goodness of humanity so clearly. It was a wonderful birthday present.
Final exams were the last week of February. Afterwards, the kids kept taking classes. High school graduation was the first week of March; junior high school graduation was March 16th; elementary school graduation was the 25th; kindergarten graduation was the 26th. One of the kindergartens in my town also had its permanent closing ceremony on this date because it no longer had enough students. In both junior high and high school, there was still time on the calendar after graduation, so the remaining students had even more classes until the 25th, the date (in our time zone) of Japan’s extra-inning victory over Korea in the World Baseball Classic. How can the kids keep working when their grades were mostly determined a month earlier? I think they just get used to working every day, which is a big plus here. Even during spring and summer vacation, some kids come to school every day for their sports clubs and to show their progress in the homework they’ve been assigned.
During this period, we did have a bad incident: one of the seventh graders who was the smartest and the best at sports, and who was a member of our county champion English speech competition team, beat up a shy, fat, dull kid to try to intimidate him into buying the smart kid’s iPod. He kicked the kid in the stomach about twenty times. In America this would lead to a long suspension. In Japan, it was a big issue for a day, and the miscreant was interrogated by all the male teachers and had to go to the hospital to apologize, but then he was back at school and his sports clubs right after. On the last day of school, he even gave the speech on behalf of the remaining students about what they’d learned this year. No one wants to be his friend anymore, but he didn’t seem to suffer any other consequences. I wish someone would explain this to me, but “student discipline” is somewhere between the country’s current political situation and colonoscopies on the list of things teachers like talking about.
After the kids go home on the 25th, the teachers are told what school they’ll be working for the next year. They don’t get to decide, and they don’t get to know until two weeks before. Teachers here are employees of the state, not a particular school, and Japan has a tradition of rotating staff. 40% of our staff changed this year; 80% over the last two years; every teacher but one over the last three years. Principals and vice principals typically serve two year terms. A teacher can’t work at the same school for more than seven or eight years, and he can be moved at any time. The state board of education decides where everyone will work. It tells the local boards of education, who tell the principals, who the next day tell the teachers. A teacher who is moving has a week to wrap up his affairs before he has to report at his new school, where he accustoms himself for a week before classes begin again. Everyone is supposed to keep teacher movement a secret the first couple days; then the prefecture announces in the newspaper where everyone is going. The ceremony for teachers who are departing is the 31st; everyone, including the students who already graduated, comes back in their school uniforms for this. During that same two week period, all the class matching and administrative work for moving the students up a level, as well as the division of school and club responsibilities and homeroom classes among the staff, is also completed.
The state is somewhat responsive to the desires of its teachers, but it also makes some puzzling decisions. For example, our gym teacher was the best badminton-playing teacher in the country, but he spent four years at our school which doesn’t have a badminton team. Instead he taught volleyball. Our math teacher of eight years would prefer to be a gym teacher, but there are too many aspiring gym teachers here in rural Japan so he played it safe with numbers. Still, he enjoys coaching tennis more than anything else, and he’s one of the best at it: our junior high school of two hundred students has one of the best tennis teams in this part of Japan. This year, they won the Kyushu tournament and placed in the top eight in the national tournament. He got married this year, and he knew that as an eighth year teacher he was obliged to move despite the program he built, so he requested to be placed near his new wife, who he married this December. The day before he left for the tournament, he heard his placement, and though he’s now right next to his wife, his new school doesn’t have a tennis team, and it’s too small (in his estimation) to start one, so the greatest tennis mind in the state junior high school system will be coaching track or girls’ volleyball for the next couple years. He went to the tournament. The day he returned, he attended our goodbye ceremony and party. The next day, he drove two and a half hours both ways to start work at his new school. In his free time he’ll try to find a house for himself and his wife. Meanwhile, our school didn’t receive a tennis coach in return. We’re hoping the new gym teacher, a rugby player, can pick it up on the fly.
My schools all have about fifteen staff members. At my junior high, six changed; at my elementary schools, seven, four, three, and three did. A couple people went from one of my schools to another, but mostly I’ll never see them again, so I drove everywhere to say goodbye. The teacher of my Hall of Fame fourth grade class at Higashi is moving too, sadly, but she’s promised to have me over for dinner some time. I’ve already met her husband, an English teacher, and her daughter, who just graduated from my junior high, and she was always telling other teachers I’m her boyfriend so I just have to see her again! Now I’ll go through the departing junior high school teachers, since they were a big part of my life and deserve a memorial of some kind. The gym teacher’s constant banter with the sassy Japanese teacher, a woman who is his age, always brightened my day even if I understood their tone of voice more than their words most of the time. The vice principal, besides working the second longest hours of anyone (the youngest teacher works the longest), was a classy coach for the kendo team, which is all girls, except for one boy who plays because every firstborn son in his family has played kendo (and then farmed oranges at the manor) for one hundred forty years. The school nurse suffered depression and seemed to have a bit of Asperger’s, so she had problems with other teachers, but I understood her, and I had a fun lunch with her husband and three-year old son once. The shop teacher/baseball coach, who also organized the school’s schedule, sent me my funniest New Year’s card. He, his wife, and his teenage children were looking forward, expressionless, as is the Japanese custom. He and his son looked exactly alike. His wife and his daughter looked exactly alike.
The math teacher had a scary samurai face, and he was the school enforcer, a necessary position at junior high because the boys are such punks. When the sixth graders and their parents came to the junior high, this teacher stumbled to the podium like he’d been shot in the leg, even though he was perfectly healthy. He said the rules of junior high weren’t very hard if you had a good heart. The kids’ hearts would be “scrubbed” every day so that as graduates, they wouldn’t make a faux pas that eliminated the results of three years of work. There was just one thing to remember: “If you don’t look out for your fellow classes, there will be VERY (long, drawn-out breath) VERY serious consequences.” The kids peed in their pants. He taught math in a really Japanese way: I could hear the students shouting equations and principles in tandem the same way they pump each other up at sports practices. I was afraid to talk to him myself because he was always so serious. The last day, though, we finally clicked and became good friends.
I’ll miss the music teacher the most. She sat very close to me in the office, and she loved talking so much that even when no one was around she’d carry on narrating her activities. She tried to talk to me every day. At first, this didn’t go so well, and all we could talk about was food and the current weather. As the months went on, though, “hanashi ni hana ga sakimashita.” Literally, “in conversation a flower blossomed,” or figuratively, “the conversation warmed up.” Her positive spirit and constant jokes made me excited to come to school every day. Also, she was the only teacher, and her homeroom the only group, to call me “Mr. Smyth” rather than “Mr. James,” which always made me feel warm. All the teachers wrote thank you and goodbye messages to teachers of their choice before the goodbye party; I wrote mine to the music teacher in Japanese. She moved to the next junior high school over, and according to the ALT there she’d made a lot of friends already.
We had a big goodbye party on the 31st. The next day, the new teachers started work at our schools, and they brought lots of delicious welcome snacks, as you are supposed to do when you join a new community. I made the rounds of all my new schools to say hello. On the 3rd, at the junior high we started preparing in earnest for the new year: everything regarding staff responsibilities was decided in about forty minutes, mostly by dictate from the principal, and then the teachers got together and split the students of each grade into homerooms. Finally, we had a big welcome party. (We went nuts this week.) I’m looking forward to this year. The new teachers are friendly, and they have an interesting mix of personalities, so we partied late into the night. The new vice principal is returning to his hometown after stints at bigger schools, and he’s so excited to be here that he’s already lifting everyone else’s spirits. He even has a nephew at our school. During the “introduce yourself in an original way” stage of the party, one teacher told us that he didn’t say a word in junior high school because he was bullied and unhappy, but when he entered high school the change of environment inspired him to self-renewal. Now he’s painfully extroverted. Five out of the new six teachers are single, with varying degrees of desperation, whereas the departing teachers were all married, so there will be a new element of sexual tension in the office this year. My most difficult elementary school, which is actually in the next town over, brought in some really cool and friendly people (the vice principal said I can hug him if I want) so it’s going to be just as fun as the rest. There are girls my age working at four of my schools now, and the older teachers are already half-facetiously trying to set me up with them. This is a change of pace from elementary school teachers in their upper 30s flirting with me, but it’s equally fruitless. I’m too happy with the way things are. Not tied down to anyone, I have time to talk to everyone. At this week’s parties I talked about religion, parenting, education, and love with people twice my age. The other day I was explained transubstantiation to some eighth graders.
I’ll never see most of my departing students and teachers again, so I tried to give them all proper goodbyes. I sent long-delayed thank-you notes to English teachers at other schools who helped me out, gave mock Western graduation certificates with my signature to my sixth and ninth graders, and told teachers things I enjoyed about them that I hadn’t had time to express before. Day by day, by acting like I’m a good person, I can get closer to really being one.