Friday, March 07, 2008

3/9/08 Day of 1,000 Bows

The past several days at school have been devoted to the third grader's graduation ceremony. Many school days have been completely chopped in half, with the students all going to the gym to practice the ceremony after lunch. I witnessed the quite solemn and very serious way that everything was going to go down. You see, not only the soon graduating students were practicing, but nearly every human in the building came to go over their parts.

Every practice day was the same. One classroom at a time, the students would pick their chairs up and carry them with them towards the gym. A large group of teachers stood at the entrance to the building, examining the uniforms of the students. One of the more common infractions seemed to be the length of girls' skirts, but I imagine that is an issue everywhere people wear skirts. The big one, though, was hair.

'"Psychologically speaking hair symbolizes power," says Dr. Miyamoto, "and at the same time it is an expression of one's thoughts, emotions and conflicts. . . . As you may recognize, through hair, the educational system demands that students share the illusion that all Japanese are the same."' Another little quote from Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, an interesting book that I will most likely continue to mention here and there. I don't know the exact guidelines, but the main infraction involved some of the students' outlandish hairstyles, as well as hair coloring. I found the color thing amusing. Everyone's hair is more or less the same hue, so you can easily spot a student thats out of line from a block away. It seemed like a hopeless rebellion on the part of the kids.

The teachers were enforcing the rules with a fervor that reminded me of airport security, or perhaps the entryway to a particularly fight-prone dance club. Before I entered, I spread my legs and raised my arms, waiting for an imaginary metal detector wand. No one found that particularly funny.

One of the most practiced parts of the routine was the various movements required. Everyone had to stand up at the same time, bow at the exact same time.... if you simply started at the same time but bowed at your own pace, you were in danger of coming back up at the wrong instant, ruining the "we are a bowing machine" effect. The bow itself was therefore broken into three or four steps, and a note was played on the piano as a signal to move to the next stage of back bentness. The whole thing was like a really forced version of "The Wave" at a particularly uneventful baseball game.

The receiving of the diplomas itself was especially forced. One was required to bow to the teacher's section, then proceed up to the stage. Bow to the principle and vice-principle, and yell a loud "Hai!" when one's own name was read. They then reached out and grabbed the large certificates, first with the left then right hands, arms fully outstretched. With yet another bow, they walked down the stairs and placed the paper they had just received in a large box. After another bow to the dignitary section on the opposite side of the room, they returned to their seats with hands straight down at their sides. A misstep in one of these many actions caused a teacher to run over and offer words of advice on the spot.


Well on Friday, the big day finally arrived. The teachers' room was a beehive, with everyone running around and talking a bit more tensely than normal. The students who had ignored the past week's warnings about hair were brought in one by one. First a couple of the teachers had lengthy talks with them, most definitely unpleasant ones. Several got on the spot haircuts which were probably purposefully done as awfully as possible.

All the women that were 3 grade homeroom teachers, and so would be in the actual procession, were wearing kimono, which was pretty cool. Everyone else, though was dressed up nicely but not notably so. As I had already seen the exact ceremony several times at practice, it wasn't particularly exciting. Several important people got up and gave 10 minute long speeches, and then it was over. No joyous cheer at the end, either... simply another solemn procession out the door.

Afterwards, all of the parents and teachers made a long line from the doors to the school all the way to the front gate of the grounds. We clapped and said "omedeto" to the students, congratulating them for their three years of hard work. I did the obligatory picture taking and yearbook signing with several of the students, and then it was over.


All the junior high schools in town had graduation on the same day, and we all got off work a bit early due to the festivities. Not wanting to waste such a lovely gift, we hopped on a train to Kiryu, a closely neighboring city. Its nice because there is plenty of action within walking distance of the train station, which is merciful because we have to shed our bikes in order to take the train.

One of the highlights was an Indian restaurant we had dinner in. I got a curry set, which came with this massive piece of naan, a soft bread.

I think that I will start to take more pictures of the restaurants, as they are one of my main joys in this country. Stay tuned.


  1. Uniformity in Japan is interesting. So different from the individualism in the United States. I guess it has some good things and bad things. Be a uniform society may mean that people will commit less crime or be more respectful. But on the other hand I think this uniformity lacks emotion and inhibits creativity.

  2. Amen to that, brother. Its great that Japan has its own thing going on, because if it was exactly like the US I probably wouldn't be here. The trick seems to be, though, when you play the "uniform" society game, what happens to the people who are unwilling or unable to act like everyone else?