Friday, March 15, 2013

Ken-Bun-Ki "Graduation"

 Note: "Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki" is a series of articles I wrote for my Japanese City Hall newsletter back in 1996-97. They were articles about life in America or life in Japan as experienced by an American. This one is from March 6, 1997. 

March is the graduation season in Japan. So today I want to write about graduation ceremonies in America.
First of all, in America elementary, junior high, and high schools are all one system, with only one graduation ceremony. In America's system each town has its own elementary, junior high, and high schools. We do not say 'Junior High First Graders" or "High School First Graders." We have "7th graders" or "sophomores." Also, elementary schools and junior highs do not have their own graduation ceremonies. There are "good-bye ceremonies" but that is it. There is only one graduation diploma given out after the twelve years. 

Also, the ceremonies in Japan and America are totally different. In America, graduation season is in May. Therefore, most ceremonies are held outside instead of inside. The graduates all wear gowns. When the graduation ceremony is over, the graduates will throw their caps into the air. Many of you have probably seen this scene in movies.

The order of who graduates is also different. In America, the graduates are not usually divided by gender. The graduates receive their diplomas in alphabetical order. Historically boys and girls were divided, and blacks and whites were also separate. Several decades ago, however, in order to be a more equal society, American standardized all ceremonies. In America it is considered discrimination to treat anyone differently.  We have various minorities  in America, so it is very important that everyone be treated the same. The first time I attended a Japanese graduation ceremony I was a little bit surprised when the students did not graduate in AIUEO (Japanese alphabetical) order but were presented traditionally, boys before girls, (in birth order). 
Anyway, for those graduating this month: Congratulations! Do your best on your new life path! 

This is another one of those articles that tells the Japanese audience about the US culture, so I have to tell you about the Japanese version now.
In Japan the elementary, junior high, and high school experiences are all totally separate. You get a graduation certificate at each location, and there is a graduation ceremony at each school. There's also a "graduation" ceremony at kindergarten/nursery school, but that is not considered in the same way as the others.
Each school hands out a "diploma" in the American sense, which boggled my mind. Mandatory education in Japan is similar to the US, as you have to by law go to school until you're 13 or 14 years old. So in that sense, I guess a junior high school diploma makes sense. In my farming community there were several kids who simply did NOT go on to high school. Still, the idea that your formal education is twelve years long was very strong in my head, so the Japanese system seemed odd to me.
Also, the graduation ceremony itself reminded this sentimental American of some regimented German or British system (Japan took many of their educational cues from Europe). The children stand up as one row of seats, march to the stage as one, march across the stage when their name is called, and then march off. There was absolutely NO spontaneity or emotion in 99% of the ceremonies I ever saw. Plus, the boys all got their diplomas in the birth order before any of the girls got theirs. So the youngest boy was graduated before the oldest girl, which to me seemed odd.
I am not sure if the traditions have changed, but when I asked/called the principals and superintendents out on this, they told me "this is the traditional way" and did not make any moves to change it.

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