The big day arrived. I’d been teasing her ever since she graduated elementary, telling her she’s not a junior high school student until the actual ceremony. Well now she is because the ceremony is over.
She looked so grown up in her uniform, so pretty. I envy her olive skin, dark eyes and long thick brown hair. I wore a dark dress with a purple and pink flowered pattern. I don’t think anyone else wore a dress. There were a couple of people in kimonos but most wore suits or stuck to the general formal fashion prominent at these ceremonies. I stand out whatever I do, so I figured I’d just wear a dress I like, rather than worry about looking like everyone else. I also wore black ankle boots. It’s definitely not the season for those around here. Everyone else wore shoes. I like my boots though and they are my most comfortable footwear aside from my trainers. Besides... as anyone who lives in Japan knows, all shoes come off in the entrance hall anyway, so what does it even matter?
I asked my daughter how she was feeling before we went. Her biggest concern was whether she would be in the same class as her best friend or not. They mix the kids up every year and there is a tendency to split friends, in order to encourage them away from always hanging around with the same people. She also said she was nervous about bullying, not so much about it happening to her, but more about seeing it happen to someone else. I told her that if anything ever happens then we can talk about it together and try and find a solution. I also told her that unfortunately bullying is something we all have to learn to deal with, because it doesn’t just occur in schools, it happens amongst adults too.
When we arrived at the school, the first thing to do was to check the list of names taped to the door of the entrance (genkan) and find out what class our daughter was to be in. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to be with her best friend. Luckily there are a couple of girls she really likes in her class though. We went inside and removed our shoes. We were immediately greeted by some third graders who handed us a little packet with a disinfectant wipe in it for our chairs. For anyone reading this who is not familiar with Japanese schools, it is customary to wear indoor shoes in schools. When parents go, they take their own shoes or slippers and a plastic bag to carry their outdoor shoes in. Mine are some flat slip-on black shoes that I bought specially for occasions such as these.
My daughter then headed to her new classroom. We were ushered in the opposite direction and handed a thick envelope with about 25 different letters and forms inside it, plus the program for the ceremony. We then proceeded to the school gym. Many of the forms are health related, for at the start of the school year all children undergo a variety of health checks, including this year for the first graders, an ECG.
Just before the ceremony began, the students filed into the gym, while the parents and teachers clapped. They were to be seated right in front of the stage, with the parents or guardians behind and the teachers to the left at the side. When they reached their seats, the clapping halted and there was complete silence. It always amazes me how children in Japan are so compliant. I think back to my school days and I remember how kids would shuffle and squirm and fidget. There’d be coughing, low whispering, even people calling out sometimes. There’d inevitably be someone who suddenly decided they needed to leave to go to the bathroom and then someone else who would faint and cause a big commotion. Not during my child’s ceremony though. You couldn’t hear a pin drop and no one moved an inch until it was time to bow Then, like magic, a whole grade of around 90 patient twelve-year-olds lowered their heads and upper bodies in almost perfect unison.
As surreptitiously as I could, I wiped away the dampness around my eyes. My baby is growing up fast. It is such an important life stage for them too, entering junior high. The teen years are now fully upon us. This is where their studies become much more important and their life paths get forged. Those that are academically minded will get into the best high schools and universities. To be honest I am not sure where my daughter lies yet. She’s always done well in elementary. From now on though, she`ll be ranked in every test. I have no idea if this will be something that inspires her to strive harder or something that zaps her confidence and causes her to step back. I guess time will tell.
‘Kimi ga yo’, the Japanese national anthem was played over the loud speakers. It was an instrumental version and nobody sang. I find it a very solemn piece of music. It added to my melancholic mood. I tried to focus more on the fact this is a new beginning not a loss.
The principal gave the first speech. Often in these big gyms, I struggle to hear and understand because the sound can be quite echoey. In bad weather, rain pounds on the roof and can completely drown out a speaker, even with a mic. Today though, it was sunny and warm and this gym is newer, so I was pleased to be able to understand pretty much everything. His words focused mostly on encouraging the new students to do their best to try new things and discover their own passions in life. He also emphasised making the right choices and creating their own personal goals. He said he hoped they had a wonderful three years in the school.
The next speaker was the head of the PTA. He too talked about discovering new interests and finding out for themselves what they really enjoyed. These speeches do follow a general pattern. They all begin and end of course with a bow. Many will include a reference to the season and lately to the trials of the coronavirus pandemic. The new students are congratulated heartily. It definitely feels like a special day for them, a big moment of their school lives.
Next were the students’ speeches. First, a representative spoke for all the new students. Facing the principal head on, the young boy fearlessly read out a letter, his voice clear and confident. The whole grade was standing during this. He thanked the headmaster for the wonderful ceremony the school had provided them and promised that they would all try hard. He acknowledged all the teachers and promised to do their best to be good students. His words were obviously moulded into a pattern that is no doubt repeated year after year, but I thought it was a beautiful part of the ceremony, focusing on gratitude, ambition and potential.
Following this, a third grader addressed the new students and congratulated them all for entering the school. She told them the older students were really looking forward to having them there and enjoying school life together. She reminisced how she was standing there like them just two years ago and she remembers what it was like, the excitement, the nerves, the anticipation. She asked them to reach out to an older student if ever they felt uncertain. It goes so fast, she told them earnestly. I am certain every parent there could agree.
The special guests were introduced by name. This was then followed by the teaching staff, starting with the three homeroom tutors, all male. My daughter’s teacher happens to be the PE teacher. Following on from that, a representative for the parents then spoke. I have no idea when these things get decided, but I imagine it was probably during a PTA meeting, which I was not involved with last year. She thanked the school for the ceremony, congratulated the kids again and asked them to reach out for support whenever they need it.
Finally, the school song was played on loud speakers before some brief closing words. The new students filed back out of the gym, this time to some upbeat music and that was it the ceremony was over.
My daughter’s teacher then came over and thanked us all for attending. He told us what an amazing bunch of kids we have and how well-behaved they were during the ceremony. He noted how tremendously they will change over these next three years and that he and the rest of the teaching staff promised to do their absolute best to educate them to the best of their ability.
And so there it is. I have a junior high school student now. Life is going to change so much for her now - and for me too.